The following offers education-related highlights of the recent legislative sessions. The enrollment figures are based on estimated fall 2000 data reported by the National Center for Education Statistics 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.
Budget Gold Hard to Find
In Post-Olympics Utah
Utah basked in the glow of the world spotlight when the Winter Olympics came to Salt Lake City in February. But shortly after the Olympic flame was extinguished, lawmakers had to confront the cold reality of a severe state budget shortfall.
Faced with the need to trim more than $250 million from the state’s current budget to deal with revenue shortfalls, Utah legislators cut $21 million in operating funding for public schools, a 1.3 percent decrease from fiscal 2002’s $1.61 billion. Lawmakers believed that school districts could handle such a reduction in their funding for next school year without major cuts to resources at the classroom level.
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But in the weeks since the Utah legislature adjourned in early March, districts have taken steps that suggest the state reduction will indeed be felt by students.
The 71,000-student Granite district, the state’s second largest, will increase class sizes next year by 1.5 students, and is weighing plans to lay off more than 150 teachers.
The 74,000-student Jordan district, Utah’s largest, is also increasing class sizes and planning for layoffs. It is also dropping achievement tests beyond the grades required by state law. And thirsty teachers will have to seek out hallway drinking fountains: The district plans to get rid of water coolers in teachers’ lounges.
School districts say the 1.5 percent state cut is not the only reason they face tight finances. They must also budget to cover increases in insurance premiums and salary increases based on training and experience.
The state office of education was hit with a 10 percent, or $3.2 million, cut in its office budget, which may result in the layoff of some specialists.
One bright spot for the education establishment is the failure for the second year in a row of a tax credit for private school tuition. This year’s plan would have provided a $2,100 credit to parents who pay their children’s tuition or to individuals and businesses that donate money for private school scholarships.
Opponents were able to raise concern by arguing that some businesses could wipe out all of their state-tax liability by making large contributions for tuition. That wasn’t how the program was intended to work, and the Senate sponsor of the measure had planned to offer an amendment that would cap the credit. But the bill never reached the Senate floor.
In other action, lawmakers passed and Gov. Michael O. Leavitt signed a bill requiring schools to display the motto “In God We Trust.”
Another measure that passed has riled teachers and their unions. It requires teachers to reimburse school districts for paid leave for union activities if the time is spent on political matters or other noneducation activities. The sponsor cited a state audit that found schools spend some $210,000 for substitutes for teachers engaged in union activities that were not considered education-related.
Another controversial bill passed the legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Leavitt. One lawmaker who believed that teachers too readily recommend that students receive Ritalin and other “psychotropic drugs” offered a measure that would make it a crime for them to refer a child for psychiatric treatment for behavioral problems. The criminal sanctions were removed from the final version of the measure, which was dubbed the Ritalin bill, but teachers could have still faced dismissal for violating it.
Aid Method Is Tweaked
To Meet Court Mandate
Despite decreasing student enrollment and a national recession, the legislature this spring approved an increase of $53 million in spending for schools over the next two years, or $1.4 billion for the fiscal 2003-2004 biennium.
The school finance bill for fiscal 2003 equals $713.2 million, up 2.9 percent from $692.8 million this year. However, funding is slated to fall back by 1.5 percent in fiscal year 2004, for a budget of $702.7 million.
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“You have given your best to assure that we have quality teachers and safe and secure buildings,” Gov. Jim Geringer told the state legislature on March 13, the close of a 23-day special session.
The bill also included revisions to the state’s K-12 funding formula, in response to a mandate from the state supreme court to overhaul the system.
The Wyoming Supreme Court threw out the state’s school funding formula in 1995, finding that it gives too much money to small school districts with declining enrollments at the expense of large, growing school systems. The court gave the state until July 1 of this year to begin remedying the problem.
Consequently, the legislature took steps to restructure the funding formula this session, adjusted administrative salaries, and called for eight studies to more closely analyze issues such as vocational education, regional cost-of-living differences, and funding for small schools. The law also contains a two-year “hold harmless” clause to protect schools against decreased funding until lawmakers make final changes to the funding formula.
“You have dealt with every issue raised by the supreme court,” the governor told lawmakers. “We’re in a transition to determine how we will make all that happen.”
School construction funding took a heavy blow, however. Legislators axed a Republican-sponsored bill that would have allowed the state to issue bonds to pay for up to $532 million in school construction. However, it did approve a bill to create a seven-member panel to develop school construction guidelines.
The legislature also created a state commission to supervise school construction projects as part of the school finance bill. This was in response to the supreme court’s requirement that the state produce a six- year plan to finance the construction of new schools and to fix deteriorating schools.
Finally, graduating high school students will get one of three “achievement levels” on academic transcripts: general, comprehensive, or advanced.
—Rhea R. Borja
Tight Budget Produces
Modest Raise for Teachers
Cutbacks to Georgia’s education system have not been as deep as in some other states, but schools and teachers nonetheless are feeling the effects of the weakened economy.
First, teachers will not see as big a raise as they were expecting. Gov. Roy E. Barnes originally recommended a 3.5 percent hike—a figure that was already disappointing to the two main teacher groups in the state. The final pre-K-12 budget of $6.29 billion for fiscal 2003 included only a 3.25 percent salary increase, and was $47.4 million lower overall than the current fiscal year.
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Leaders of the Georgia Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association, responded to the budget by saying that the state won’t be able to improve the state’s teacher shortage until salaries are higher.
On the other hand, teachers will reap greater rewards on their paychecks if they become nationally certified. Legislators approved a yearly 10 percent bonus for teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, based on their annual salariesa $1.8 million addition in fiscal 2003.
The budget also includes a $14 million—or 50 percent—cut in money for school library books and other materials—a decision that angered state schools Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko.
The governor “said he wasn’t going to cut programs that directly affect classroom instruction,” said Ms. Schrenko, who is running in the Aug. 20 GOP gubernatorial primary, in a prepared statement. “If library books are not direct instruction, I don’t know what is.”
Local districts will also see a 10 percent drop in state funding for transportation—which will force districts to delay the replacement of older buses—and a $14.4 million cut for staff development. The state will receive new federal dollars, however, for teacher training in reading.
In spite of the cuts, the budget includes $22 million for school improvement efforts and $1 million to match a grant from the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to establish an institute for education leadership.
Lawmakers also changed the state’s charter school law to remove a blanket exemption from state education requirements. Charter schools now must state in their charter applications what regulations they want waived and why.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Capitol Recap