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Education Package Barrels Through Arkansas Legislature

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On Jan. 21, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas outlined a plan to raise $287.2 million over the next two fiscal years, all for education.

On Jan. 29, to many observers' amazement, the plan was law.

"They've never moved anything that cost money through the legislature that fast," said Sid Johnson, president of the Arkansas Education Association. "Even the old-timers said they'd never seen anything like it."

At breakneck speed, the legislature joined with the Governor to create the Educational Excellence Trust Fund--a fountainhead for new education programs and for a 10 percent, across-the-board pay raise for teachers and school administrators, whose average salaries currently rank 50th in the nation.

For government watchers, the cooperation and determination in Little Rock "was truly a wonder to behold," said Brenda Matthews, coordinator of information services at the state education department.

For educators, though, the celebration focused not so much on the legislation's speed as on its content.

"It has to be a tremendous boost for morale for teachers and administrators traditionally ranked at the bottom of the charts," said Kellar Noggle, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Education Administrators.

Using a half-cent sales-tax increase and an extension of the sales tax to used cars worth more than $2,000, the legislation made it possible to provide $90 million in salary hikes in each of the next two years.

That would give teachers an average pay raise of $4,000, in addition to the $1,000 raise they were already slated to receive this year, according to Mr. Johnson. The addition should boost Arkansas's pay rank at least to 45th, he said.

Remaining funds would go to new or expanded programs for preschool, remedial education, adult literacy, rural magnet schools, merit-based scholarships, school restructuring, alternative school certification, and apprenticeship pilots, among others.

Setting the Stage

In his Jan. 15 inaugural speech and later in his State of the State Address, Governor Clinton had set the stage for the legislature's action.

"We cannot, we cannot ever hope to have the education system we want if we try to add new standards, new programs, and new opportunities on the backs of the school teachers," he said in his inaugural address.

"They have done all that they can do, and they have produced for you more results with less money than any state in the United States of America," he continued.

His education package represents the kind of real financial investment the state needs to move out of poverty, Governor Clinton argued.

"Our destiny is in our own hands," he said. "I believe that because when we are as healthy and as well-educated as the rest of the country, our incomes will rise to the national average and our opportunities will broaden...."

Observers said that many legislators felt that Governor Clinton had received a clear mandate for social change when he won an unprecedented fifth term last November. The gubernatorial contest had pitted a Republican with a strong anti-tax platform against Mr. Clinton, who told voters new revenue would be necessary for new social programs.

The new legislators who came in on the Governor's coattails in the election--in which Democrats gained four seats in the House--shared his belief, said Susan Whitacre, Mr. Clinton's spokesman.

"There seems to be a sameness in everybody's thinking," she said. ''There's a sense of urgency on the part of the legislators and the Governor, and I think that's a reflection of the state as a whole."

Two years ago, Mr. Noggle noted, a similar education package presented by Mr. Clinton had gone nowhere.

The programs that will be funded from the new trust fund must still be approved in individual bills. But with the hardest part--raising taxes--over, the proposals were all expected to pass. The pay-raise bill neared final approval late last week.

Preschool, College Programs

Other allocations likely to emerge from the trust fund for fiscal years 1992 and 1993 include:

$15 million for preschool programs;

$11 million in college scholarships for any high-school senior having a B average after completing an established core curriculum;

$3 million to fund 10 to 12 pilot apprenticeship programs for high-school students not intending to go on to higher education;

$1.77 million to establish a mathematics and science school that would train teachers, experiment with alternative curricula, and serve the state's brightest math and science students;

$1 million to create rural magnet schools in the state's poverty-ridden Delta region;

$650,000 for continuing efforts at school restructuring; and

$100,000 to develop an alternative school-certification system.

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