Gov. Stanley Stephens of Montana told lawmakers last week that they should develop a plan to equalize state school expenditures by March 9, and only then turn to the more difficult problem of raising the funds that will be needed to achieve that goal.
Key legislators and education officials, however, promptly dismissed both the deadline and the two-part strategy as unrealistic.
In a Feb. 14 speech before a joint session of the legislature, Mr. Stephens outlined his proposals for dealing with a funding order issued by the state supreme court. The speech came two weeks after the high court held that the current school-aid system was unconstitutional because it denied students in property-poor areas equality of education opportunity.
"The overall issue is so complex that if we do not handle equalization and revenue in two separate stages, progress will be stalled and deliberations will reach an impasse," the Governor argued.
Mr. Stephens recommended that the equalization effort be phased in during the coming biennium.
During the first year, he said, the legislature should implement proposals he outlined in his State of the State Message. His plan includes setting spending limits on district expenditures, channeling teacher-retirement funds through the state-aid formula, and raising spending for special education.
In the second year, he said, lawmakers should take steps to raise the state's share of school districts' costs to 80 percent--a dramatic increase from the current level of about 60 percent.
The state allocated $622 million for school aid in the fiscal 1988-89 biennium. Mr. Stephens told legislators that "when the equalization issue is determined ... I will not hesitate to let you know of my conclusions" on how to raise the necessary revenues.
Plan Draws Criticism
Lawmakers and educators said that although the Governor's proposals represented a step toward equalization, they doubted whether the plan would satisfy the supreme court's mandate.
They also said his March 9 deadline for action and his proposed two-pronged strategy were impractical.
Noting that the Governor gave the legislature only 17 days to pass a bill, Representative Ray Peck, chairman of the House select committee on education, said, "It would be impossible to get a bill on his desk in that time."
The timeline is "made even less realistic by his expectation that the legislature adopt an equalization plan before considering how the revenue will be raised to fund it," added Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Education Association. "Funding may be impossible to pass as a single bill."
By proposing a two-step program, the Governor is avoiding a commitment on taxation, said Nancy Keenan, the state school chief.
Mr. Peck, however, noted that prior attempts to exact a state sales tax had been soundly rejected. The Governor's evasion of the issue, he said, may be "a shrewd political ploy to force the legislature to make the decision on taxation."--jw