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Accountability, At-Risk Youth Rank High on 1989 Agenda

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State lawmakers are expressing an unprecedented degree of interest in holding schools accountable for results and in the problems of potential dropouts, but are deeply concerned about the soundness of state finances for the upcoming fiscal year, a new survey of legislators and their top aides has found.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a majority of education-committee chairmen say the issues of accountability and at-risk children will be their second and third most important priorities during this year's legislative sessions, topped only by school finance.

This year marks the first time that those topics have been assigned such a high degree of importance since the ncsl began surveying committee chairmen several years ago.

Early-childhood education has also moved up on the list of priorities, rising from the eighth position in last year's survey to fifth place this year. In previous surveys it was vary rarely mentioned, the study noted. The topic also was listed as the number one priority this year for human-services committees.

On the other hand, relatively few education chairmen displayed an interest in giving parents more choice in selecting their children's schools and in experiments in site-based school management--reform concepts that are being embraced by an increasing number of governors.

According to the survey, lawmakers in only five states--Arizona, Colorado, New Jersey, Utah, and Vermont--said they expected their legislatures to address the topic of choice this year. Action on site-based management was predicted in only Arizona, Michigan, Utah, and Vermont.

The study also found a sharp drop in emphasis on teachers and teaching, which fell from the second position in last year's survey to seventh place. Researchers attributed the decline to the fact that many legislatures have acted on the issue in recent years.

Financial Worries

As in past years, the heads of the education panels said their main challenge in 1989 would be securing adequate resources for public schools and deciding how best to allocate those funds.

That finding was echoed in a separate survey of legislative fiscal aides, who reported that school finance would be the top spending priority in this year's state budgets, followed by health and social services and the environment.

The finance experts also noted, however, that they were very worried about the potential for revenue shortfalls in the upcoming fiscal year, which would raise the prospect of budget cuts or limited growth for education and other services.

More than 50 percent of the respondents listed that prospect as their top concern in the area of revenue and taxation, and another 20 percent said it would be their second most-important problem.

The ncsl said these findings are consistent with those contained in a report it issued last summer that predicted the likelihood of shrinking balances in state general funds and serious fiscal problems in about one-third of the states in fiscal 1989.

Hard Fights Ahead

"In most legislatures, dollars allocated for education spending in the 1990 school year will be carefully scrutinized, and the battle for specific program funds will be hard fought," the report on the survey of educationcommittee chairmen predicted.

It suggested that many states will closely monitor the implementation of California's Proposition 98 to see if it can "offer a solution to their school-finance problems." The new law, which was approved by voters in November, guarantees that education will receive a set percentage of the state's general-fund budget.

A group of influential Republican senators in Michigan is expected to begin soon a petition drive aimed at placing a similar initiative on their state's 1990 general-election ballot. The lawmakers adopted this approach after negotiations over a tax- and school-finance-reform plan collapsed last month.

According to the ncsl survey, education-committee chairmen in 29 states said revising their school-finance formula would be a top priority in 1989. Recent court rulings are forcing action in Kentucky, Montana, and Texas, and Iowa's formula must be revised before 1991. Officials in Arizona, meanwhile, say a special session may be held later this year to examine their formula's equalization factor.

Chairmen in 18 states said they expected to reexamine the balance between state and local funding for public schools this year, with most saying an increase in the state's share is likely. In a related vein, offi4cials in 15 states predicted that changes in state and local taxes for education would be examined.

Demanding Results

The school-reform movement of the 1980's resulted in major increases in state funding for education. And as the states' education budgets have grown, so have their demands for improvements at the local level.

"Accountability is hot," concludes the ncsl study, which found that the issue was identified as a top priority by committee chairmen in 31 states.

The survey indicates that student testing is one of the preferred means of ensuring results. Texas lawmakers, for example, said they would consider rewarding school districts that demonstrated improvements in students' scores. Respondents in 19 other states said they also expected that student testing would be a main issue for debate this year.

Chairmen in 19 states said that measuring the performance of teachers and schools would be a high priority this year. Oklahoma lawmakers will examine "how funds are being spent in certain subject areas at various grade levels and the corresponding quality of student outcomes," the study found.

Other states, it said, plan to reexamine school-accreditation standards and to conduct financial audits of programs. The survey did not ask the education chairmen whether they were considering "academic bankruptcy" legislation similar to that passed in New Jersey in 1987.

Children at Risk

Committee chairmen in 33 states said addressing the problems of at-risk youths would be one of their top priorities, placing it third on the list nationally.

"This is a significant increase from the ranking of sixth most important during the 1988 session and lower rankings from previous years' surveys," the study noted.

The ncsl finding comes four months after the release of a nationwide study that gave the states a grade of F for their services to such children. That report, by mdc Inc., a North Carolina research firm, characterized existing state efforts to address the needs of the at risk as being "piecemeal in nature." (See Education Week, Sept. 21, 1988.)

Despite such criticism, committee chairmen in 23 states said they would examine the need for more pilot projects designed to retrieve dropouts and keep potential dropouts in school. Chairmen in 13 other states said they hoped to attack the problem by urging parents to become more involved in their children's education.

Chairmen in 11 states said they would consider mandating statewide programs for at-risk students.

Early Childhood

The desire to address the dropout problem was also reflected in the relatively high ranking assigned to early-childhood education by both education-committee chairmen and lawmakers on human-services panels and their top aides.

Education-panel leaders in 15 states, for example, said they would consider funding pilot preschool programs for the disadvantaged. Officials in other states mentioned programs to increase parental involvement and school-based child care for teenage parents as other options.

The survey of human-services committee members and their aides found that child care and early-childhood education would be amain point of emphasis. The second-highest-ranking topic was at-risk youth, with a particular emphasis on teenage pregnancy and substance abuse.

"State legislatures appear to be struggling with these complex societal problems through welfare programs and education initiatives, but coherent strategies have not been established," the study concedes. "The high priority of these issues in numerous states may mean, however, that the 1989 session will yield important advances."

Copies of the report, "State Issues 1989," can be purchased for $65 prepaid by writing ncsl Marketing Department, Attention: Book Order Department, 1050 17th Street, Suite 2100, Denver, Colo. 80265. Credit-card orders may be placed by calling (303) 623-7800.

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