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Educators Consider The Census' Effects On State Legislation

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A single day next week could go a long way toward framing the debate over education policy in the states for the rest of the decade.

Census Day, when questionnaires mailed to the nation's 106 million households are due back to the U.S. Census Bureau, is April 1.

The 1990 Census will undoubtedly have an important effect on federal education policy, observers say, as reapportionment and redistricting shift the balance of power within the U.S. House of Representatives and new population counts channel formula-driven funding to different areas.

But the most lasting impact of the nationwide population count, some education analysts said last week, may be its role in reshaping state legislatures to accord with a decade of demographic shifts.

A major consequence of the anticipated changes in the legislatures, warned John Myers, education-program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, could be to impede efforts to equalize educational spending within the states.

"It seems to me that the shift [in legislatures] is going to be toward more wealthy suburban areas," he said. And a greater concentration of legislative power in wealthy areas, he continued, "may make it more difficult to put together the votes necessary to make school-finance formula changes" in many states.

Some state lawmakers said last week, however, that it was too soon to tell whether the population trends reflected in the census will lead to a change in legislative priorities.

"I really can't tell you how it's all going to play out," said Senator Joseph G. Harder of Kansas, chairman of the Senate education committee. Kansas conducted a state census in 1988, and members of its House will be elected according to the new districts this year.

Other education experts predict, moreover, that reapportionment within the states will have a minimal effect on education issues.

"A suburban legislator is not going to let the urban or rural education program go," said Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association.

Education lobbyists will simply have to adjust their strategies, he said.

"There'll be a different mix in state legislatures," he acknowledged. "And it will be up to school people to work with them."

A Slow Shift

Results of this year's census are due to the states by April 1, 1991. Both state and Congressional districts must be redrawn in time for the 1992 elections.

Many observers said the 1990 census will merely confirm trends already identified in the 1970 and 1980 surveys. The slow shift of power from the cities and countryside to the suburbs will proceed, they said.

The 1990 census will yield few startling results, said Mark D. Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board. It will show that the aggregation of Americans into huge, spread-out metropolitan areas is continuing, he predicted.

But whether legislatures will become more "suburban" as a result of the census is almost irrelevant, Mr. Musick said.

The legislative leadership in many states is so entrenched, he explained, that the shift of a few seats will probably make little difference at first.

"Seniority plays a major role" in the legislatures, Mr. Musick noted. "It will take several years for [reapportionment] to have an effect" on policy--educational or otherwise.

Others--notably state lawmakers--expressed hope that the legislatures would not be dominated by suburban concerns, even if more of their members are from the suburbs.

Many legislators think only of their district, said Mr. Harder of Kansas. But "there will always be some statesmen" in the legislature, he said.

Added Representative Don E. Crumbaker, chairman of the education committee in the Kansas House: "In the end, we're all going to have to take a look at how what we do affects everybody."

Mr. Musick also noted that suburban areas increasingly have "urban" problems. Educators in some suburbs, like those in major cities, must deal with large numbers of students from low-income families, he said.

In suburban Atlanta, he pointed out, De Kalb and Gwinnett counties "are now feeling some of the same pressures they've got in Atlanta."

Finance Reform At Risk?

Still, many educators and some lawmakers said that legislatures with more suburban members may be less willing to tackle some traditional urban problems.

"Power is flowing into suburban areas and out of urban and rural areas," said Allan Odden, a professor of education at the University of Southern California.

That trend could affect school-finance equity, he said, as "the politics of school finance become more and more dominated by metropolitan state legislators."

"That's not necessarily bad," he added. "But some of the most intractable problems are in the inner cities."

According to the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington-based think tank, 64 percent of all population growth in the United States between 1980 and 1986 occurred in the suburbs.

William P. O'Hare, director of policy studies for the PRB, pointed out that many of the newer suburbs are more wealthy than other parts of their states. "It's often not in their interest to have school-finance reform," he said.

"My suspicion is that the outlook for that kind of reform, legislatively, is not good," Mr. O'Hare added.

Mr. Myers of the NCSL said the changing character of many legislatures may lead low-wealth school districts to press their drive for greater state aid more often in the courts.

"We've already seen increased activity by the courts in school finance this decade," he said, referring to recent cases in Texas, Kentucky, and other states. "There may even be more of that in the future."

In Illinois, where advocates for low-wealth districts are planning a suit against the state, some observers said prospects for school-finance reform in a reapportioned legislature are not encouraging.

When the new legislature convenes in 1993, said Gary V. Ey, assistant state superintendent for school finance, "I think there's probably going to be some resistance from some of [the members from newly drawn districts]."

Many of the new members will represent relatively wealthy areas, he said. "Those representatives are going to have tremendous pressure to keep things the way they are," he suggested.

'Suburban' Issues Ascendant?

Most lawmakers and educators contacted last week agreed that "suburban" issues will be more prominent in the legislatures of the 1990's. But they differed both on what those issues might be and on whether the trend should be viewed as a good one.

"I just think we'll be dealing with a different dynamic here," said Richard H. Clemmons, a lobbyist for the Illinois Farm Bureau, which has been a prime force in organizing the state's school-finance lawsuit.

The changing character of the legislature "may be negative in some respects, but I think it will be good long-term," he added. "Just changing faces sometimes makes a difference."

In Florida, a spokesman for Commissioner of Education Betty Castor speculated that urban and suburban lawmakers may be more willing to consider certain issues.

"Growth is the biggest issue here," said David Voss, adding that lawmakers from fast-growing areas will naturally be more sensitive to it. He declined to speculate, however, on whether increased state funding for school construction would be the result.

Many Florida schools are already experiencing severe overcrowding because of enrollment growth.

Urban and suburban lawmakers are usually more interested in such issues as drug education, school violence, and parental involvement, Mr. Voss noted. Traditional "rural" issues, such as school transportation and vocational education, may lose prominence, he said.

But Mr. Voss cautioned that he was only speculating, and emphasized that reapportionment was "more of a political issue than an educational one."

Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, thinks that reapportionment can only help education in the nation's most populous state.

"Where there are more kids, there will be more representation," he said. "Where there's more representation, there'll be more political clout."

With more members from high-growth areas, he predicted, the California legislature will be more willing to increase funding for new school construction.

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