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School Groups Unite To Fight Perpich's Spending Proposal

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Gov. Rudy Perpich of Minnesota wants to dramatically expand Head Start programs in his state, sponsor experiments in school restructuring, create incentives for improvements in urban schools, and begin a major push to put computers in classrooms.

But faced with tight state revenues, he has proposed making funds available for these initiatives by increasing basic per-pupil aid to school districts by only 1.6 percent in the 1989-90 school year, and not at all the following year.

The Democratic Governor's budget, which calls for an 8.6 percent, or $260 million, increase in overall education spending in the next biennium, has generated a firestorm of criticism in the state. Leading education groups have formed a new coalition to oppose it, and Republican and even Democratic lawmakers have offered alternative plans that would raise the spending level higher.

Ironically, the outcry comes at a time when Mr. Perpich's national visibility on education issues is at an all-time high. He frequently travels to other states to extol the merits of Minnesota's groundbreaking open-enrollment program, has had an opinion piece on the topic published recently in The New York Times, and is currently chairman of the Education Commission of the States.

"We can no longer meet the needs of students with the financial resources presently available to local districts," said Thomas Adams, a spokesman for Alliance for Commitment to Education, the new coalition of school groups. "Clearly, we need action. We need something besides rhetoric."

'Critical Point'

Leaders of the coalition argue that education is at a "critical point" in Minnesota and needs almost $500 million in new funds over the next two years, even if that means raising taxes.

The centerpiece of their proposal is an increase in state per-pupil aid, from its present level of $2,755 to $3,020 next year and $3,170 the following year.

Lawmakers from both parties have also responded with plans to increase state school aid.

Republicans are calling for increases in per-pupil aid to $2,875 next year and $3,000 the following year. That would represent a 4.3 percent boost in the first year, and a 4 percent increase in the second year.

The Republicans also recommend lengthening the school year by two days in each of the next five years, with the ultimate goal of reaching a 180-day school year.

Democratic leaders in the House, meanwhile, say that although they back the Governor's plan to raise per-pupil aid by 1.6 percent next year, an additional 5.2 percent in8crease will be needed in the second year of the biennium.

"When money is short, the first thing you do is fund the basic programs that are in place," said Representative Robert McEachern, the Democratic chairman of the House education committee.

Calling Governor Perpich's budget proposal "disappointing," he said lawmakers will "have to steal money from [the Governor's proposed] new programs to fund the base."

Both parties are calling for part of their proposed second-year increases to be earmarked for class-size reductions in early grades.

'A Matter of Priorities'

From the Governor's point of view, the state's schools have received healthy increases in unrestricted aid since he assumed office in 1985. His current budget, his spokesmen say, reflects a desire to exert greater control over how further increases should be spent.

State officials report that from 1983 through the end of 1989, per-pupil revenues for school operations will have increased by 34.2 percent, compared with an estimated inflation rate of 17.5 percent for the period.

Education's share of the state budget, meanwhile, will have increased from 21 percent to 26.3 percent during that time.

In addition, Governor Perpich has repeatedly stated that education would be the main beneficiary if the state's revenue forecasts improve.

"The education groups are asking, 'What have you done for us tomorrow,"' said Robert J. Wedl, the state's deputy commissioner of education.

"We are putting tremendous new resources into education, but what most people look at is only the formula allowance," he added.

"Everything boils down to a matter of priorities," Mr. Wedl continued. "The Governor is trying to target dollars into areas he believes are very important."

In a related development, the Minnesota Business Partnership, an influential state business group, has launched a media campaign calling for a $900-million reduction in the Governor's overall budget proposal.

While the partnership has not called for specific cuts in spending for schools, education groups fear that the business group's efforts could undermine their drive to boost such spending.

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