NCSL Tracks Link Between State Surpluses, Education Spending
State governments are on course to hit record budget surpluses of nearly $40 billion for the 1998 fiscal year, according to a survey released here at the recent annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The rising tide of revenue helped raise K-12 school spending in legislative sessions this year for fiscal 1999 by about 6 percent above funding from last year's sessions, the survey found. The NCSL is still awaiting some final data for fiscal 1998, which ended in most states on June 30. The NCSL estimates that states spent $158.5 billion on K-12 education in the last fiscal year.
"Education appears to be the beneficiary in many of the states choosing to invest excess revenues in state services," said William Pound, the NCSL'S executive director. The 46 states that responded to the survey reported a total budget surplus of more than $28 billion. High revenues projected in the non-reporting states, including California and North Carolina, could push the surplus totals to record highs, NCSL officials said.
The data released at the July 20-23 conference, which was attended by about 6,500 people, did not include state-by-state data. Breakdowns for all 50 states will be released this fall.
Sixteen of the states that responded to the survey earmarked spending increases for such areas as education, child health, the environment, and crime. On the education front, school construction and class-size-reduction programs saw the biggest hikes, the report's authors said.
Nineteen states also cut taxes by a total of $3.8 billion for the fiscal year that began July 1. It's the fourth consecutive year of major tax cuts, for a total of $13.7 billion, the report says.
But dark clouds may be on the horizon. "Many states note that multiple years of tax cuts account for expected slow growth" in future revenues, the report states.
"I believe that fiscal 1999 is going to be a very good year," said state Sen. Richard H. Finan, the Ohio Republican who is the NCSL's president. "But our gurus in Ohio are talking 2001 as the next downturn."
School finance systems that can't pass the test for educational adequacy should be flunked, a separate NCSL report concludes. The document, which outlines five broad principles for building an adequacy-based aid system, was prepared by a 24-person panel of legislators, legislative staff members, and business representatives.
"If policymakers and the courts use these, we can end up with a school finance system that is more rational and defensible," Pennsylvania Rep. Ronald R. Cowell said during a press briefing. Mr. Cowell, a Democrat, worked on the report.
States should set clear and measurable academic goals and identify the tools needed to reach the goals, such as strong teachers, the report says. Funding should also be sufficient to pay for those tools and for a state network that supports and tracks student achievement.
Mr. Cowell said that no state currently has a perfect model for an adequacy-based school finance system. The report says such models will be harder to devise than systems based strictly on fiscal equity, which are driven more by numbers than by educational objectives.
Teacher recruiters for the Clark County, Nev., district--which includes the conference site, Las Vegas--must grow tired of coming to work with sore arms.
As recruiters for what officials say is the fastest-growing school district in the country, they must return from their scouting trips to more than 40 states with "at least two pounds of applications," Georgia Ann Rice, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources, told lawmakers during a session on teacher recruitment and retention.
The 192,000-student district is growing at a pace of roughly 6 percent every year, Ms. Rice said, and will need to hire roughly 1,400 new teachers this year alone in order to meet the demand. District leaders have expanded their World Wide Web-based electronic recruiting as a way to attract more teacher-candidates without hiring additional recruiters. The district's Web designers have done their best to offer teacher-candidates one-stop shopping, with Nevada licensure information, an electronic application, and curriculum information all available at the click of a computer mouse. The district also tapped videoconferencing technology to interview out-of-state candidates unable to travel.
"We can't keep adding to our travel budget. It's just not cost-effective," Ms. Rice said.
--ROBERT C. JOHNSTON & JESSICA L. SANDHAM
Vol. 17, Issue 43, Page 24