Education Takes Back Seat to Security at Governors' Meeting
Terrorist threats, health-care costs, and the environment dominated the National Governors Association's meeting here last week. But the governors insisted that education hasn't slipped as a top issue—especially during what is a gubernatorial-election year for 36 states.
"Education to a governor is like national defense to a president," said Gov. Roy E. Barnes of Georgia, a Democrat, quoting a remark President Bush made while governor of Texas. "Education always has to be the number-one priority every year for a governor."
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, it was no surprise that the governors spent much of their four-day annual Washington meeting talking about the scarier issues of the day, including security against future attacks.
But even in a White House meeting with the president Feb. 25, talk turned to education.
Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges of South Carolina said the state executives talked with Mr. Bush about the new "No Child Left Behind" Act, signed into law in January, and how the measure will affect states.
The law makes dramatic and potentially costly demands of state education systems, including requirements for statewide assessments in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 by the 2005-06 school year, school district report cards, and stepped-up standards for teacher preparation and certification. ("Testing Systems in Most States Not ESEA-Ready," Jan.9, 2002.)
President Bush assured the governors that the federal Department of Education will consider the states' existing tests and accountability systems as it draws up the rules for how the new law, a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, will affect the states, Mr. Hodges said.
As the leader of a state that has had a school accountability program in place since 1998, Mr. Hodges said he was reassured by the president's remarks and sees the federal law in a positive light.
"It's state-friendly," he added of the new ESEA. "It'll create a real partnership with the federal government."
But during the final session on Feb. 26, the governors homed in on pressing budget issues, especially federal programs that they view as unfunded mandates.
A persistent target of their complaints, for example, is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation's main special education law, which is up for reauthorization this year.
Congress is authorized to contribute 40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure toward educating students with disabilities, a level of federal aid that is commonly referred to as "full funding." But despite big increases in federal education aid in recent years, it hasn't come close to that level.
This fiscal year, the federal government is chipping in 18 percent of the total national average per-pupil cost, or $8.3 billion.
President Bush wants to increase that allotment by $1 billion for fiscal 2003, but one member of Congress warned the NGA that "full funding" would likely elude lawmakers, in light of the federal budget crunch.
"My prediction is that we won't get much above 18 percent this year," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., a member of the House subcommittee that handles education funding, told governors.
And though a cooperative tone ruled the sessions last week, one Democratic governor took President Bush to task for a planned reduction in the federal allotment for children's vaccinations.
"I find it appalling that the president of the United States is cutting vaccine money so that we can give tax breaks to people like Ken Lay," the former chairman of the bankrupt Enron Corp., said Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, who is retiring this year. A physician, Gov. Dean has focused on children's health-care issues through much of his 11 years as governor, and reportedly may be testing the waters for a presidential bid.
Republican Gov. William Janklow of South Dakota accused the Vermont governor of "taking a partisan cheap shot" and breaking what had been a bipartisan work session. The Bush administration has explained the vaccination funding cuts by saying demand for the program was higher last year, and program spending simply reflects demand.
But Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he and other Democratic governors oppose Mr. Bush's tax-cut plans and should be able to speak their views. "My concern is seeing proposals advanced with very little input from the governors," he said.
And while several competing agendas were discussed here in Washington, the constituents back home likely will carry the most sway with their top executives.
For his part, Gov. Hodges of South Carolina hinted at the importance education likely will play in his fall re-election bid.
"It's what I wake up every day thinking about and go to bed thinking about," he said.
Vol. 21, Issue 25, Page 24