Capitol Recap

July 09, 2003 10 min read
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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.

Alaska | Kansas | Nebraska | Texas| Vermont | Washington


Education Fares Better
Than Other Services

Alaska’s education programs were spared many of the more serious cuts faced by other areas of state government for fiscal 2004. Precollegiate education absorbed reductions in several school programs, but also received a boost in per-pupil spending.

Overall, the final budget for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development fell from $1 billion in fiscal 2003 to $942 million for the new fiscal year that began July 1, a drop of 5.8 percent. But a department analysis showed that state general-fund spending on education actually fell by only 1.3 percent, from $738.8 million to $729.2 million. Other apparent reductions were, at least in some cases, the result of shifts in programs to other agencies.

“When you look at the kinds of cuts for other parts of state government,” said department spokesman Harry Gamble, “public education came out very well.”

8 Democrats
12 Republicans

13 Democrats
27 Republicans

134,000 (K-12)

First-year Gov. Frank H. Murkowski signed Senate Bill 202, which increases the state’s per-pupil aid from $4,010 to $4,169, a 3.9 percent hike. The Republican governor said it was the largest such increase in the formula in about a decade.

He also avoided major cuts to K-12 education in his line- item vetoes.

Overall, the budget was reduced from $7.3 billion in fiscal 2003 to $6.95 billion in fiscal 2004, a reduction of 4.8 percent. At the start of the legislative session one estimate put the state’s budget deficit at $896 million. In addition to making spending cuts, Gov. Murkowski drew $379.6 million from the state’s constitutional budget reserve to close the gap.

To help pay for the K-12 funding-formula increase, the budget includes reductions to other school programs. One proposal eliminated the state’s learning- opportunity-grant program, which helped schools improve standardized-test scores.

—Sean Cavanagh


Lawmakers Maneuver
To Spare Education Aid

Kansas lawmakers played a shell game with state aid for fiscal 2004, tweaking the budget cycle just so to maintain K-12 spending and avoid increasing taxes.

Legislators faced down a potential $200 million budget deficit by delaying the final payment of state aid to schools until fiscal 2005. They also changed the date property taxes must be collected, which in turn allows schools to collect three payments instead of two in the 2004 fiscal year.

In the end, the Sunflower State will spend slightly more on education in the new fiscal year—$3.5 billion, or 1 percent over fiscal 2003. Kansas will spend total $7.3 billion on all state endeavors.

Most conversations in the legislature surrounding education turned to paying for schools. Lawmakers considered allowing school districts to take the drastic step of dipping into building funds to pay for utilities and other expenses, but eventually dismissed the idea.

10 Democrats
30 Republicans

40 Democrats
85 Republicans


The legislature also discussed a number of provisions to consolidate districts, a debate that is ongoing as enrollment continues to fall in many communities in western Kansas. That idea, too, fell flat.

In the end, many school advocates were happy to make do with the small increase, but lamented the unstable fiscal situation.

“The reality is we don’t have a solid stream of funding in the state for education,” said Christy Levings, the president of the Kansas National Education Association. “We’re on a shoestring, and that shoestring is very thin.” As a result, teacher positions are being cut, class sizes are growing, programs are being slashed, and essential services are being put off, she said.

—Julie Blair


Despite Tax Hikes,
School Spending Down

Unicameral Legislature:
49 Senators


Faced with a $759 million shortfall from declining revenues, the Nebraska legislature in late May overrode Gov. Mike Johanns’ veto and approved a $5.4 billion budget for the 2004-05 biennium that includes $345 million in tax hikes and $436 million in cuts to state agencies. Despite the reductions, the overall budget will grow by 1.3 percent this fiscal year.

The new biennial budget, which took effect July 1, reduces state aid to schools by 3.6 percent, or $63 million, compared with the previous two-year budget cycle. The total K-12 budget for the two-year cycle is $2.1 billion.

To help offset that cut, the legislature approved giving school districts an additional 5 cents of property- tax authority, from $1 to $1.05 for every $100 of valuation, for the 2003-04 and 2004-05 school years.

The 3.6 percent cut is less severe than one in a $5.2 billion state budget proposed by Gov. Johanns. His budget would have sliced 9 percent from K-12 funding and 9.4 percent from higher education aid.

Education funding accounts for about half of the state budget.

Cornhusker State legislators also overrode the Republican governor’s veto of a bill that raises liquor and cigarette taxes and extends the 5.5 percent sate sales-tax rate indefinitely. The measure also expands the sales tax to include recreational-vehicle-park charges, some construction labor for remodeling and repair, as well as newspaper advertising supplements.

—Rhea R. Borja


School Spending Rises
While Other Areas Cut

Texas lawmakers spent much of this legislative session wrestling with a $9.9 billion shortfall in their $117 billion, two-year budget for fiscal years 2004 and 2005. Though deep cuts were made in almost every other funding area, state aid to public education increased by $1.2 billion—to $30 billion—over the two- year cycle.

Still, staffing for the Texas Education Agency was trimmed by about 13 percent, which means that about 130 out of 860 employees will be laid off by Aug. 31, the last day of the fiscal year. That decision meant, though, that programs directly benefiting children were spared, said Debbie Graves- Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman.

12 Democrats
19 Republicans

62 Democrats
88 Republicans

4.1 million

Legislation was passed that relaxed some state oversight requirements so the agency could absorb the layoffs, she added.

In addition, legislators approved a new science education initiative modeled after existing mathematics and reading programs. It will include a new curriculum and a research-based approach to teacher training.

Gov. Rick Perry also signed a measure that makes it a felony for a school employee to have sexual contact with a student where the employee works.

Also, a highly controversial bill that would have created a pilot voucher program in about 10 districts died in a House committee.

Legislators could be called back for a special session this fall to overhaul the state’s school finance system.

—Michelle Galley


Tax Shifts Help Buoy
Education Spending

After years of public clamor over climbing property-tax bills, Vermont legislators wrought major changes in the state’s school funding system before adjourning May 30. The new finance law is expected to provide tax relief for homeowners by shifting some of the burden of education funding from property taxes to, primarily, the state sales tax, which will increase from 5 percent to 6 percent, beginning Oct. 1.

The legislation will also eliminate the much- criticized “sharing pool” set up by the 1997 overhaul of school finance, known as Act 60, which allowed towns to spend more than the state-set minimum on their schools, but only by sharing the extra revenue with poorer districts.

Higher-spending districts responded in several cases by establishing private foundations to avoid what some dubbed “the shark pool.” The foundations collected money in lieu of taxes over the minimum rate, saving taxpayers money by cutting out the taxes that would have been shared elsewhere. The foundation contributions were voluntary, but some local residents felt coerced into paying.

Under the new structure, which takes effect in the 2004-05 school year, revenue raised from residential property taxed above the statewide rate will remain in local schools. Revenue from commercial property, which will be taxed at a new, higher level, and from increased sales and phone taxes will make up much of the difference.

19 Democrats
11 Republicans

69 Democrats
74 Republicans


Gov. James H. Douglas, the state’s first Republican chief executive in a dozen years, blocked a plan that would have eliminated property taxes for homeowners and substituted an income tax.

Vermont budgeted $915 million on precollegiate education for the fiscal year that started July 1, a 3.6 percent increase from the current year’s $883 million.

Lawmakers wrapped up education business by expressing discontent with the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. In a bipartisan move, they adopted a resolution that declared Vermont would not spend extra state money to fulfill the law’s mandates, and it required state education officials to monitor spending related to the federal law.

Said state schools chief David C. Larsen: “It gives all Vermont and beyond a pretty clear idea that in our legislature ... there are some strong concerns about [the law’s] implications.”

—Bess Keller


Gov. Locke’s Plan
Angers Unions

24 Democrats
25 Republicans

52 Democrats
46 Republicans


A budget plug that lawmakers crafted in a special session early in June will stop a projected $2.6 billion hole in Washington state’s biennial budget for 2004 and 2005. But the solution has disappointed school districts and angered teachers who say they are owed money under two initiatives that voters approved in 2000.

The legislative session also left supporters of charter schools just short of their goal of passing the state’s first charter school law. A bill passed by both chambers failed to be presented for final passage at the 11th hour.

“We like to call it our best loss ever,” said Jim Spady, a co-director of the Education Excellence Coalition, a political action committee based in Seattle that has organized support for charter schools for a decade. He said he believes the bill has a good chance of passing in the 2004 legislative session, which will begin in January.

But the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, cheered the failure of the charter school bill.

Meanwhile, the new budget gives Washington’s public schools a 2.2 percent increase in state funding compared with the last biennium. Out of a two- year total state budget of $23 billion, the state will allocate $10.5 billion to K-12 education.

New spending includes $29 million in more pay for teachers who are in their first seven years of teaching.

But the state dropped funds for a list of initiatives, such as the state test of students’ listening skills, alternative routes for teacher certification, training to prevent bullying in schools, and a World War II oral-history project.

The biggest savings came from shelving the two voter initiatives. Initiative 728 would have given districts $287 million for various activities to promote student achievement. Initiative 732 would have paid $191 million to keep teacher pay in step with inflation.

WEA President Charles Hasse said earlier this year that the union, a prime supporter of Gov. Gary Locke in the Democrat’s two campaigns for governor, would no longer support him if he ran for a third term. And in a statement on the union’s Web site, Mr. Hasse said the legislature had put more financial pressure on school districts, more than 140 of which will be negotiating new contracts with teachers this year.

—Andrew Trotter


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