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Anecdotes and the Adequacy Issue

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New Orleans--Some things just never seem to end, like a Louisiana rainstorm and the question of what constitutes an adequate education.

Under gray skies and another downpour, participants at the National Conference of State Legislatures meeting here last week packed a convention-center room where the program promised a discussion of the adequacy issue.

Lawmakers from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Kentucky, as well as school activists from the District of Columbia and Alabama, pondered the question and offered anecdotes from their own experience.

In the end they found themselves at a loss, though, to answer the question of what schools need to do and have to insure that children are given a decent chance in life.

"Damned if I know what's adequate,'' said Joe Clarke, the Speaker of the Kentucky House, who came to the session to get some ideas and ended up having to explain his state's historic response to its school-finance dilemma.

Rep. Jeanette Bell of Wisconsin also gave the issue her best shot.

Ms. Bell discussed the importance of a "common-sense approach,'' and told the audience that adequacy is linked to the issue of opportuntity--which in turn is linked to money.

"The question is what kind of programs meet the needs of children in school districts,'' she said.

The man in the audience who had just asked what kinds of programs meet the needs of children in school districts could only nod in agreement.

Things were not terribly more enlightening down the hall, where a panel discussing the pressing issue of juvenile justice could only agree in the end that it is an issue worthy of discussion.

"I don't mean in any way to discount the importance of crime,'' said Bart Lubow, a juvenile-justice expert for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. But the crisis is not a new one, he added.

Mr. Lubow detailed statistics showing that children are becoming criminals at roughly the same rate they have over the past few decades. They also commit less than their share of crimes--accounting for 12 percent of crimes yet 13 percent of the population.

But Delegate Ken Montague of Maryland said states cannot afford to simply compare statistics as they deal with what has become a politically explosive issue.

"I'm hearing from juvenile judges that these are not people trying to get an apple off the cart,'' he said, "but children who have gone to work at 9 years old selling drugs and starting what amounts to a drug-distribution career.''

"The statistics may say one thing, but politically it has to be understood that the growing fear must be reckoned with,'' Mr. Montague said.

As with other issues plaguing the states, youth violence can probably win little more than lip service from lawmakers, said Rep. Anne C. Barnes of North Carolina, the chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

Ultimately, the problem can only be solved by communities that rally behind their children, she suggested.

"We have to admit that we don't have the answers or the resources,'' Ms. Barnes said. "Because for every criminal we catch right now, it seems like we're creating another one on the outside.''

About the only people who felt they had surmounted their problems during these gray days were lawmakers from Michigan, who seemed to enjoy a slight envy from their fellow legislators here.

The Michigan legislature was able to solve its own nagging school-finance troubles by taking the unorthodox step of first making matters worse.

Last year, the lawmakers abruptly abolished $5 billion in local property taxes, throwing themselves into a panic that was only solved in hectic end-of-the-year deliberations.

What had the makings of fiscal suicide now seems heroic.

"If I had it to do all over,'' said one proud Michigan lawmaker, "I would force the crisis again.''

The sentiment was only a slight consolation to many of those attending the convention, who after a few days here realized that even when it is not raining, it is getting ready to.

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