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Published in Print: January 19, 2000, as Education Tops Governors' Lists of Priorities

Education Tops Governors' Lists of Priorities

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If the State of the State speeches resounding through the halls of government this month were songs, every governor could be said to have tootled the education note, and many to have trumpeted an education theme.

"The four most important issues we'll talk about this session are education, education, education, and education!" Gov. Paul E. Patton announced in a Jan. 5 speech to the Kentucky legislature.

Mr. Patton's declaration was echoed around the country, coupled in many cases with ideas for stemming teacher shortages or for better educating students for an increasingly computer-driven workplace.

"The one important thing I had not expected to find [in the speeches] was a growing realization of the importance of education in recruiting the kind of workforce you'll need for a strong economy and an emphasis on community colleges as a part of that," said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

Smaller classes and early-childhood education also proved popular with governors who delivered the first round of annual addresses, traditionally delivered as legislatures convene for their new sessions.

Pataki Joins the Pack

In at least one state, the attention paid to education came as something of a surprise.

Gov. George E. Pataki of New York, a Republican who has spent first five years in office pushing fiscal conservatism over social concerns, put education front and center in his sixth State of the State Address, delivered Jan. 5. The change caught some Democratic lawmakers off-guard, but they offered support for most of his education proposals.

With poll after poll showing state voters keenly interested in education, the choice to stress schools along with health care may have seemed a natural, especially with legislators in both houses up for election in the fall. As if to reflect that, New York lawmakers on both sides of the aisle reserved their warmest applause for the governor's education proposals.

Mr. Pataki "paid relatively little attention to education last year," said Nicholas W. Jenny, a researcher with the Center for the Study of States of the Rockefeller Institute for Government in Albany, N.Y. "He's much more in the pack of governors now."

The governor's speech especially targeted the lack of good teachers in city schools serving poor children. The centerpiece of his plan is to pay the four- year tuition costs of students at state universities who sign up to teach for the same period in disadvantaged public schools. Students in private colleges would get a comparable $3,400 annually for their tuition in exchange for the same commitment.

Mr. Pataki also proposed to cover the cost of courses that uncertified teachers need to win certification and to hire college juniors to work in city summer schools, where they might be inspired to pursue teaching as a career.

"With this program," Gov. Pataki said, "we can ensure that every school has the best possible teachers, so every child gets the best possible education."

New York union leaders generally welcomed the governor's recruitment plan, though they said it left an important part of the teacher shortage unaddressed. "We're very much interested in it; we like the concept of tuition forgiveness," said Alan B. Lubin, the chief lobbyist for the New York State United Teachers, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate that represents about 275,000 teachers in public schools.

"What's missing," Mr. Lubin added, "is any incentive to keep teachers in the inner cities. ... Just across the border [in the suburbs], they can earn 25 to 40 percent more."

Attracting New Teachers

Across the country in California, a Democratic governor also turned lawmakers' attention to the supply of good teachers in a Jan. 6 speech devoted heavily to education.

"In the next eight years, we must recruit and train more teachers than were troops in the Allied forces that stormed Normandy on D-Day," Gov. Gray Davis declared, adding, "We must not meet that demand by lowering standards or by sacrificing quality."

To address that need, Mr. Davis, who took office a year ago, offered a plan with some similarities to Mr. Pataki's. Under it, California would pay the cost of a college education, up to $11,000, for students who went on to teach in a public school "that ranks in the bottom 50 percent." Teachers in such schools would get a $2,000 signing bonus and the possibility of a $10,000 down payment on a new home if they kept teaching.

Gov. Davis also wants to allow retired teachers to return to the classroom without any reduction in their pensions, and to expand a new teacher-training program.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a first-term Democrat, said his state, too, needed to work on recruiting and retaining new teachers. Among his proposals is to expand statewide a program that provides mentors for beginning teachers.

While California leaders started a big push to lower class sizes three years ago, governors in some other states—Arizona and Washington, for example—say they want to pursue that goal this year, if possible.

"It does not make sense that our state, with one of the highest per-capita income levels in America, has the third most crowded classrooms in our nation," Gov. Gary Locke told the Washington state legislature in his Jan. 12 speech. The governor proposed using the state budget surplus, which some leaders have wanted to earmark for roads in the gridlocked Seattle area, to hire 1,000 additional teachers in the coming school year.

Mr. Locke, a Democrat running for re-election this year, said he plans to couple smaller class sizes with more demands on teachers, including a test for rookies. Washington is one of only five states that do not require such a test, the governor said.

Grading Schools

Many states' chief executives continue to believe that building accountability systems is their best bet for school improvement.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican elected in 1998, used his State of the State speech not only to highlight the $111 million in new spending his proposed budget would put toward education, but also to outline several measures designed to increase the accountability of students, teachers, and schools. Student would take more tests, new teachers would forgo tenure, and, perhaps most dramatically, schools would be graded on an A-to-F scale in a plan not unlike that passed by the Florida legislature last year.

Under Mr. Owens' proposal, children in failed schools would be able to transfer to another public school with the state subsidizing some transportation costs. For the students who remained, the schools could be converted into charter schools run by groups—public or private, profit or nonprofit—selected by the state school board through competitive bids.

"Without reforms such as these in place," Gov. Owens said, "it will be difficult for me to merely sign a school finance act that would continue the status quo."

Not every speech was chockablock with new ideas for education. Some governors praised past efforts and called for legislators to stay the course with funding and support.

Among them was Mr. Patton of Kentucky, a Democrat. Calling the day in 1990 that the legislature passed Kentucky's wide-ranging education reform act "this body's finest hour," the governor asked for more money to carry out the plan, including all the family-resource centers that were envisioned.

Governors will continue delivering State of the State Addresses for the next several weeks.

Vol. 19, Issue 19, Pages 21,23

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