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Educators, Lawmakers Rap Kentucky Governor's Budget

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Kentucky educators and lawmakers have fired a broadside at Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson's budget request for education, claiming that it would severely undercut existing reform efforts.

Faced with the prospect of a deficit as large as $450 million over the next two years, Governor Wilkinson last month proposed a lean $6.7-billion state budget that he said would raise spending for precollegiate education by $114 million, from $2.88 billion to $2.92 billion.

But the Governor's critics say a closer examination of his plan indicates that he proposes to pay for new reform programs that he highlighted in his election campaign last year by slicing funding for reforms adopted by the legislature in 1986.

Lawmakers and lobbyists, expressing pride of ownership over the reform package, say they are prepared to fight to maintain its integrity.

"Our commonwealth, following the directions laid out by Governor Wilkinson, may adopt an education budget that will set back Kentucky's chances for increased job opportunities and better living conditions for yet another generation," said Robert F. Sexton, executive director for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' group that spearheaded the state's reform effort.

"We just don't have the money for everything," countered Jack Foster, secretary of the Education and Humanities Cabinet. "Our priority is trying to get Kentucky to back off the state-level approach to reforming schools and move to reforming education on a building-to-building basis."

Mr. Wilkinson's angry opponents, however, are contesting virtually all of his key education proposals.

Key Proposals Opposed

The first is his request for $9.6 million for a proposed "benchmark schools" program--which would permit 21 schools to experiment with innovative instructional theories--and $400,000 for a performance-bonus program that would reward districts on the basis of school attendance and student achievement. When fully implemented, the two programs would cost the state a total of $70 million annually, the Governor said.

But in order to launch them next year, critics say, Mr. Wilkinson's budget would eliminate funding for a pre-existing reform effort that rewards schools and teachers for innovation and general excellence.

Mr. Sexton and others claim that the proposed budget also would scrap parts of the 1986 reform measure that called for further reductions in class sizes and the hiring of more teachers for exceptional children.

Mr. Wilkinson's budget request for higher education has spurred an even more bitter debate. In recent press conferences, university administrators have charged that it would provide no funds for salary increases and would result in the elimination of programs.

Teacher Salaries

The Governor has responded to the complaints by scolding the administrators. "What they need to do is get busy and buckle down ... and use their money wisely and stop crying so much," he said at an impromptu press conference last month.

There also has been disagreement over whether the Governor's budget would provide a 2 percent salary increase for teachers, as he claims it would.

Senator Michael R. Moloney, Democrat of Lexington and chairman of the appropriations and revenue committee, said at a hearing last month that figures in the budget document indicated that the increase would be lower than 2 percent. But budget officials defended their calculations, and the Governor has assured the panel that the increase is there.

If Mr. Wilkinson's plan is adopted, "we will fall further behind the national average for teacher salaries and will lose in our efforts to gain the average teacher salary for the seven surrounding states," said John Brock, the superintendent of public instruction.

Mr. Brock has asked lawmakers for $30 million more in education funding than the Governor has requested.

With an average teacher salary of $22,612, Kentucky currently ranks 38th in the nation in that category, down from 32nd in 1982, according to U.S. Education Department statistics.

The Governor has also drawn fire for proposing the elimination of an "overmatch" that the state now pays into its teacher-retirement system.

Under current regulations, the state both matches contributions from individual teachers and makes an additional payment equal to 3.25 percent of the payroll of active teachers. Governor Wilkinson has requested eliminating the overmatch to save the state $73 million.

Equalization Aid

At the Senate hearing last month, Mr. Brock also criticized the Governor's proposals for the state's "power equalization" fund, which is intended to lessen spending disparities between rich and poor districts. Despite his proposal to increase the fund by $15 million, the Governor's request, Mr. Brock said, would actually widen the disparities.

On average, the state currently pays a little over 10 cents for every $100 of assessed property value in the poorer districts. That figure was slated to go up to 13 cents, but the budget request would drop the figure to under 10 cents, according to budget analysts.

Sources say the legislature is likely to consider increasing taxes to ease the financial pinch, but Governor Wilkinson, who campaigned on a no-tax platform, has said he would veto any tax measure.

"The budget suggests that by some magic trick a state with low taxes will have schools that are better than those of other states," said Mr. Sexton. "It sends the nation a message that education is not the top priority in Kentucky."

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