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States Turn to Funding 'Carrots' To Spur Reforms

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Atlanta--After trying the stick to spur school reform and finding it wanting, a growing number of states are turning to the carrot to achieve the same goal.

Incentive grants "will be the major funding mechanism of the next decade," John Augenblick, a prominent school-finance analyst, said this month at a national conference on education funding.

By financially rewarding districts that voluntarily undertake reforms to raise student achievement, legislators are hoping to accomplish what their mandates have so far generally failed to do, Mr. Augenblick and other speakers told conference-goers here. The two-day meeting was sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Such incentive grants represent less than 1 percent of the $80 billion that states now spend on public schools, Mr. Augenblick estimated. He predicted that the proportion would soon increase to between 4 percent and 5 percent.

California and Michigan already provide extra funds to dis4tricts that extend their school day or year, he noted. South Carolina, he added, rewards districts that meet state performance standards, while Iowa provides incentives for districts--primarily those in rural areas--to share educational services.

Legislators in Texas, meanwhile, are considering whether to approve $39 million in special grants to districts that improve student performance.

"I think a lot of legislatures are looking at the issue of incentives and setting goals for student outcomes," said John Myers, senior program director for the ncsl's education division.

Although legislatures currently rely on mandates to accomplish many of their aims, Mr. Myers said, they also recognize that the "use of incentives is important to achieving their goals."

An increase in the use of incentive grants, however, could have major implications for school-finance equity, Mr. Augenblick cautioned.

"It raises a very serious question," he said. "It's not unusual to find the wealthier school districts are the ones taking advantage of the incentives."

Repair and Renovation

The approximately 75 state lawmakers and legislative staff members who attended the session also heard an update on the physical condition of the nation's school buildings.

David Honeyman, associate professor of education at Lehigh University, said projections indicate that 50 percent of schools nationwide are either old, inadequate, unsafe, or inaccessible to people with handicaps.

The price-tag for replacing those buildings, he said, would be approximately $234 billion.

Because that figure is far beyond the means of states and districts, he argued, the time has come for the federal government to become involved in the financing of school construction and renovation.

"Federal funding for schools should be right in there with bridges, highways, prisons, and hospitals," Mr. Honeyman said. "Somebody has got to help those districts before kids get hurt."

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