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In Reversal, Allen Proposes Big Boost in Va. Spending

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A few months after wrangling with Virginia's Democratic leaders over his proposed decreases in aid to public education, Republican Gov. George F. Allen surprised many opponents last week by proposing a substantial boost in such funding.

And many Democratic lawmakers--who say they retained control of the legislature in last November's highly contested elections by campaigning as champions of public schools--are now applauding what many perceive as the governor's change of heart. (See Education Week, Nov. 1 and Nov. 15, 1995.)

But, in his annual State of the Commonwealth Address to lawmakers, Mr. Allen said his commitment to education has never wavered.

The governor unveiled a budget plan that includes a $635 million hike in public education funding over the next two years.

In the next few weeks, his Commission on Champion Schools is scheduled to release final recommendations for improving the public education system.

The proposed biennial budget plan would funnel an additional $635 million over the current $5.3 billion spending level for K-12 education, totaling $6 billion for fiscal years 1996-98. The plan would increase K-12 education funds by 11 percent over the current budget, the largest increase in the elementary and secondary education budget in more than two decades, state education officials said.

"The people of Virginia wanted to make sure that public schools were adequately funded, and this budget represents that," William C. Bosher Jr., the state schools chief, said in an interview last week.

Return to Normal

The spending plan includes:

  • An additional $428 million in general aid to public schools to cover increased enrollment and inflation as well as expanded health benefits and pension funds for school employees;
  • $34 million to provide teachers with a 3 percent salary increase;
  • $51 million to develop remedial programs and reduce class sizes in programs that serve at-risk youths;
  • $55 million for technology grants to provide 10 additional computers in each of the state's 1,800 schools and support technology development in the state's 131 districts; and
  • $23.2 million for the development and administration of new, statewide standardized tests to track the performance of Virginia's 1 million public school students.

Frank E. Barham, the executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association, said he was pleased with the governor's budget proposals on education.

"This is a return to a normal education budget that protects the children of the commonwealth," he said. Many of the proposals are expected to receive bipartisan support when the budget is submitted to the legislature this month.

In a sign that the legislative session will not be free of contentiousness, however, Senate Democrats and Republicans--each with 20 members--deadlocked for hours over committee assignments on the opening day of the session last week. Though the chamber's president, Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr., a Democrat, has a tie-breaking vote, Democrats appear to no longer have the political muscle they've had in the past to dictate Senate organization.

Seeking Accountability

In his speech, Gov. Allen said that if educators are to receive the additional money he is requesting, they should be held strictly accountable for their performance.

The most striking of the Commission on Champion Schools' recommendations, to be made final this month, would deny public schools accreditation if they failed to meet minimum academic standards. The commission also calls on the governor to propose a voucher program that would provide up to $2,500 per student to allow parents earning less than $35,000 a year to send their children to their choice of public, private, or religious schools. The panel also proposes to provide up to $2,000 in state income-tax credits to help students whose families earn less than $20,000 a year attend the schools of their choice.

The panel also recommended a state "report card" that would identify schools eligible for additional state money.

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