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Published in Print: June 18, 2003, as Capitol Recap

Capitol Recap

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The following offers education-related highlights of the recent legislative sessions. The enrollment figures are based on estimated fall 2002 data reported by state officials for prekindergarten through 12th grade in public elementary and secondary schools. The figures for precollegiate education spending include money for state education administration, but not federal, flow-through dollars, unless otherwise noted.

Florida

Class-Size Limits
Part of Tight Budget

Gov. Jeb Bush

Republican
Senate:
14 Democrats
26 Republicans
House:
39 Democrats
81 Republicans
Enrollment:
2,540,000

Florida lawmakers needed a special session to pass an education budget that spends nearly a half-billion dollars to shrink class sizes, but could leave some school districts short.

The $8.2 billion fiscal 2004 education budget signed by Gov. Jeb Bush on May 28 represents about a 6 percent increase from last year. Education lobbyists cautioned that the new spending favors class-size reduction so heavily that it ignores regular increases needed for enrollment growth, rising costs for employee benefits, and extra help for students who need it.

Commissioner of Education Jim Horne argued that the state is doing its part.

He and the Republican governor did not support a voter- approved constitutional amendment last year to reduce class sizes, but were forced to devise a plan to meet the new limits when legislators refused to overturn voters' wishes. ( "Fla. Lawmakers Pave Way for Smaller Classes," June 4, 2003.)

"It sort of gobbles up resources," and raises concerns about teacher quality when thousands more teachers may be needed to create the smaller classes, Mr. Horne said in an interview last week.

Lawmakers voted to spend $468 million on class-size reduction alone. They also approved $600 million in construction bonds to help schools add classrooms that may be needed to handle the smaller classes.

Despite protests led by Democratic lawmakers in several parts of the state, the Republican-controlled legislature did not ratify exemptions for students who have not passed the state exam required for graduation beginning this year. A plan to allow some 12th graders who are learning English to graduate even if they fail the test might be considered during another special session this summer. Mr. Horne, however, said last week that he opposes the idea.

"The governor and I have no interest in backing down on standards," the commissioner said.

The state instead is marketing high-school-diploma equivalency programs and summer courses for students who may not graduate or be promoted after failing the 10th and 3rd grade versions of the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test.

Florida's state-sponsored voucher programs saw a limited expansion this year. Legislators, however, voted to allow thousands more students from limited-income families to tap $3,500 corporate tax-credit scholarships that can be used in private and religious schools. ("Fla. Lawmakers Pave Way for Smaller Classes," June 4, 2003.)

—Alan Richard

Georgia

Due Process Rights
Restored for Teachers

Gov. Sonny Perdue

Republican
Senate:
26 Democrats
30 Republicans
House:
107 Democrats
72 Republicans
1 Independent
Enrollment:
1,500,000

Georgia teachers once gain have "fair dismissal" rights, now that Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, has signed legislation reversing what his Democratic predecessor did three years ago in an effort to make it easier to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.

"Running off good teachers is bad for student achievement, and I will not let that ever happen again," Gov. Perdue pledged at a June 4 bill- signing ceremony. He added that the new law "will reverse the frustrations many of Georgia's educators have experienced since 2000 based on a lack of due process rights" under the old law, backed by then-Gov. Roy E. Barnes.

At the same gathering, however, Mr. Perdue told educators that he did not support an amendment that was added to the bill that rewards teachers with a 5 percent raise if their students show improvement in test scores—a measure that he said the state is not "fiscally able to implement."

That part of the bill, though, won't take effect for at least a few years. By that time, the Georgia Association of Educators, which lobbied heavily for the amendment, hopes the state will have recovered enough economically to afford the raises.

Teachers did not receive an across-the-board raise this year.

Georgia's $16.17 billion budget for fiscal 2004 includes a number of education cuts, most notably an $11 million reduction in funding for school improvement teams. Funding for that program—which is meant to help struggling schools meet their performance goals under the state accountability program—has been cut from more than $21 million, down to $9.9 million.

The Georgia Department of Education is now working harder to stretch those funds as far as possible.

"We're trying to get the biggest bang for our buck," state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox said recently in an interview. She added that staff members in her department would team up with organizations throughout the state to work on schools' weaknesses.

The department will continue to work with the 142 schools that were receiving help, but will only be able to provide instructional coaches for every two schools, instead of assigning one per school.

The education department's $5.9 billion budget for fiscal 2004 also includes a number of smaller cuts to various enrichment activities.

—Linda Jacobson

Maryland

Funding Plan on Track,
At Least for Now

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Republican
Senate:
33 Democrats
14 Republicans
House:
105 Democrats
42 Republicans
Enrollment:
860,000

Despite lean financial times, Maryland lawmakers had enough money to make the second annual payment on the state's long-range plan to increase K-12 spending and distribute it more equitably.

The legislature was able to provide the $141 million increase called for in the six-year spending plan by using funds from a tobacco tax passed in 2002. Those revenues will revert to the general fund in future years.

But some legislators are warning that next year, money for the plan may be hard to come by.

"There's not enough money to meet the needs," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Democrat.

The tobacco tax was intended to provide the first two years of funding for the so-called Thornton Commission plan. The blue-ribbon panel proposed raising K-12 spending by $1.3 billion over the six years starting with fiscal 2003, which ends July 1.

But the Democratic majority in both houses of the legislature and Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich don't agree on how to generate money for future years.

This year, Democrats rejected the first-year governor's plan to raise an estimated $700 million annually from revenues by allowing slot machines at horse racing tracks. Mr. Ehrlich later vetoed a Democratic bill to raise corporate taxes.

Each side suggests that the other's plan was inadequate to raise enough money to keep the Thornton Commission plan on schedule and pay for the rest of the state budget.

Overall, the state will spend $3.3 billion on pre-K-12 education in the fiscal year that starts July 1, up from $3.1 billion in the current year, or an increase of 6 percent.

In the only other significant education measure passed, Mr. Ehrlich signed a charter school bill that bore little resemblance to the one he had proposed.

The new law will require charter schools to adhere to state and local regulations unless they receive waivers to exempt them from the red tape. It also considers charter school teachers and administrators as employees of the local district, making them members of the districts' collective bargaining units.

In a little-noticed change, the legislature passed Mr. Ehrlich's plan to improve the quality of teachers in the state's juvenile-justice system.

—David J. Hoff

Minnesota

Profile of Learning
Standards Repealed

Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Republican
Senate:
35 Democrats
31 Republicans
1 Independent
House:
53 Democrats
81 Republicans
Enrollment:
847,000

The biggest education news in Minnesota this year was the legislature's repeal and replacement of the state's much-debated education standards.

After years of controversy, legislators ditched the student-project-based Profile of Learning and voted to begin anew with an approach that establishes learning standards in five basic subject areas.

New standards in mathematics and language arts will be put in place this coming fall, with the standards for science and social studies to follow in the 2004-05 school year. The standards will be based on specific facts and concepts the state wants students to know by the end of each grade.

At the same time that schools are expected to adapt to the new learning requirements, most will also be grappling with cash crunches. The legislature failed to spare schools from the painful cuts needed to balance a $14 billion state budget that was $4 billion in the red.

The overall state appropriation for education—which includes K-12 district aid, family and early- childhood programs, and the various state education agencies—is $11.9 billion. That total reflects a $622 million, or 5 percent, reduction from the previous budget.

State aid to K-12 schools was funded at $131.1 billion over the two years, a roughly 2 percent reduction from the previous budget. Family and early- childhood-education programs took the biggest hit, suffering a nearly 19 percent funding decrease.

The budget also reduces spending for special education and school aid for needy students.

The reductions are forcing school districts to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and cut programs such as transportation, arts and music, after-school programming, and summer school, according to the 70,000-member state teachers' union, Education Minnesota.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Vol. 22, Issue 41, Page 27

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Correction: 
A Capitol Recap item incorrectly identified decreases in Minnesota's state aid to K-12 schools as the total amount budgeted. The state budget for the 2004 and 2005 fiscal years cut funding for K-12 education by $131.1 million, or 1.1 percent, compared with the state's previous budget.

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