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News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Ariz. School Construction Measure Advances

Last week, on Day 13 of the state's special legislative session on school construction, House lawmakers in Arizona narrowly approved a finance plan that would end local school construction bonding and instead provide some $400 million in state funding each year.

The measure, House Bill 2003, won on a 31-29 vote on March 23. In addition to doing away with local voter-approved school construction bonds, the House plan would require the state to set minimum standards for school facilities, which older schools would have to meet within five years. ("Arizona Ponders Making School Bond Issues History," March 25, 1998.)

Gov. Jane Dee Hull, a Republican, called the special session to comply with a 1994 state supreme court ruling ordering the legislature to create an equitable system of funding school construction.

The House bill's passage touched off what is likely to be a protracted battle with the Senate, where leaders have been pushing a construction bill that would allow individual districts to opt out of the state plan and continue using local bonds to build schools.

Edgar To Withdraw Illinois Ed. Department Plan

Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar has announced that, because of a "lack of consensus" among educators, he plans to abandon his effort to create a Cabinet-level state education department.

The proposal, unveiled in January, was intended to give governors more control over education policy. Among other provisions, it would have given the governor the power to name the state schools superintendent. Currently, the independent state school board, which is appointed by the governor, makes that decision.

The plan would have required a state constitutional amendment, which both the legislature and voters would have had to approve.

Board members released a statement last week applauding the Republican governor's decision March 20 to withdraw the proposal. "An independent board and superintendent have the ability to keep education at the forefront of the state's agenda regardless of who is serving as the governor," the statement said.

N.H. Governor Unveils Funding Proposal

Allowing video gambling and increasing the state cigarette tax are the two ways that Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is proposing to pay for her Advancing Better Classrooms, or ABC, school funding plan. But it's unclear how much support the ideas will get from lawmakers.

The legislation--which includes no new broad-based taxes, consistent with a promise by the Democratic governor--is her response to a state supreme court ruling in December that the current finance system is unconstitutional. The system relies almost exclusively on local property taxes to pay for education.

The governor's plan sets the minimum state funding for an adequate elementary education at $4,629 per student per year. For middle school or junior high, it's $5,206, and for high school, $5,767.

A uniform property-tax rate would be imposed statewide, but districts that could raise enough funding with a lower rate would be allowed to do so. Those that came up short would receive supplemental state aid. If the plan is approved, an additional $123 million would be needed to provide the supplemental money for poor districts.

The ABC plan would also create an accountability system requiring districts to write education improvement plans.

Ohio Says Plan Meets Court's Finance Standard

Ohio officials told the Ohio Supreme Court last week that they have met a deadline to fix the state's school finance system, though the state's main remedy hinges on a May 5 ballot vote.

The high court ruled a year ago that the funding system was unconstitutional because of wide disparities in per-pupil spending between districts.

Lawmakers voted in March to put a 1-cent sales-tax increase on a statewide ballot. That hike would raise about $1.1 billion annually for schools and property-tax relief.

Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery asked the supreme court to extend the March 24 deadline, but the justices did not issue a decision last week. So on March 24, Ms. Montgomery submitted a statement of compliance that says the state has increased aid to poor districts and tightened accountability.

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