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Finance, At-Risk Youths Top Lawmakers' Agendas

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The education agendas of state legislatures will focus this year on school-finance formulas and help for at-risk youths, according to a survey of lawmakers and their aides.

The survey, released last week by the National Conference of State Legislatures, identifies legislative priorities in 18 areas. For education, the top-cited issues were school finance, at-risk youths and dropouts, accountability, overall reform, and teachers and teaching.

School finance topped the poll of key fiscal issues as well, and at-risk youths were also named the first priority among issues related to "children, youth, and families."

This year's poll contained relatively few surprises in the education area, n.c.s.l. analysts said. "The top issue for years and years has always been finance," said Karen Walker, an education-policy specialist.

Ms. Walker noted, however, that concerns about at-risk youths--and especially their problems with drug abuse--have moved up slightly on the priority list. Last year such issues ranked third.

School governance received a relatively low rating, ranking eighth in importance among education issues. But lawmakers indicated a new willingness to debate two topics that fared poorly in last year's poll: parental choice and site-based management.

The September survey asked lawmakers in 44 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia to rank priorities within a given issue. Six states were not included because their legislatures are not scheduled to meet in regular session this year.

More than 1,500 legislators and aides responded to the questionnaires, which were sent to individuals with expertise or interest in each topic.

The Bottom Line

The education reforms that legislators want cost money, the study notes. "The bottom line for legislators" who seek to change educational programs "is, as always, funding," it says.

Lawmakers in only four states--Connecticut, Iowa, Idaho, and Utah--said they did not believe the issue of school finance would come up this year.

The survey points out that recent court cases in Texas and Kentucky, where state courts struck down existing finance systems, have heightened concerns about the fairness of school-aid formulas. Lawmakers in 33 states said they expected to examine their school-finance formulas this year.

Moreover, three of the states not included in the survey--Texas, Oregon, and Montana--have also been struggling with concerns over the equity of school-finance formulas. The Texas legislature, for example, is under a court order to address the problem at a special session this spring.

Lawmakers in 24 states said they expected their legislature to look for new funding sources for education. Only 29 respondents in 16 states, however, said they thought their legislature would consider a tax increase.

The poll also identified other ways of raising funds, such as providing incentives for localities to impose or raise taxes.

At-Risk Focus

The problems of at-risk children and dropouts placed second in priority among education issues in the poll. N.c.s.l. analysts said they saw a new concern about drug abuse among youths.

Legislators' interest in drug-abuse education programs "is something that's probably new this year," Ms. Walker said. Forty-three lawmakers or aides in 27 states cited such programs as topics for possible legislative action.

Under the "children, youth and families" heading, where at-risk youths were ranked as the main concern, 65 respondents in 33 states named substance abuse among the young as a matter their legislature needs to address.

Lawmakers and their aides identified a number of different ways legislatures could take action to help at-risk youths. Establishing pilot projects, encouraging parental involvement, and streamlining interagency collaboration were8some goals cited in the survey.

Thirty-nine respondents in 25 states expressed a desire to establish programs encouraging parental involvement with troubled young people.

Lawmakers in 20 states want to help state agencies better coordinate their services to help these youths.

"Several states anticipate examining collaboration between the Department of Education and other state agencies with the goal of keeping children in school," the study notes.

Accountability and Reform

Those surveyed attached almost equal levels of importance among education issues to accountability, reform, and teaching.

Fifty-three respondents in 29 states identified both accountability and reform as topics worth addressing, while 52 education experts in 31 states named teachers and teaching.

"Many states will approach education accountability next year by proposing student testing and measurements of teacher or school performance," the report says.

Under the heading of "education reform," lawmakers and aides indicated a desire to monitor existing reforms more closely; to pass new reforms; to promote more business involvement in schools; to legislate changes in previous reforms; and to implement some form of new graduation requirements.

Respondents also expressed an interest in raising teachers' pay. Other areas of the profession cited for scrutiny include training and certification procedures, performance-evaluation tests, professional enhancements, and performance-based pay.

The final four education-related topics in the survey were early-childhood education, school governance, special education, and facilities and capital improvements. Within those areas, lawmakers displayed an interest in:

  • Choice issues, which were cited as a topic of possible legislative action by 39 respondents in 22 states. Last year, lawmakers and aides in only five states said so.
  • Site-based school management, which was mentioned by 29 respondents in 17 states.
  • Pilot projects in early-childhood education, which were listed as an important goal by 27 respondents in 20 states.
  • School-based child care, which was selected by 26 respondents in 20 states.
  • Consolidation of school districts and funding for special education, each of which was mentioned by 24 lawmakers and aides in 15 states.

Copies of "State Issues 1990" are available for $65 each from the n.c.s.l., Book Order Department, 1050 17th St., Suite 2100, Denver, Colo. 80265.

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