Education

Capitol Recap

September 03, 2003 8 min read
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The following offers highlights of the recent legislative sessions. Enrollment figures are based on fall 2002 data reported by state officials for pre-K-12th grade in public elementary and secondary schools. The figures for pre-collegiate education spending do not include federal flow-through funds, unless noted.

Connecticut | Nevada | New Jersey | Oklahoma | Rhode Island

Connecticut

Magnet Schools Among
Winners in Tight Budget

A stormy legislative session in Connecticut wrapped up in overtime this summer and produced some of the state’s smallest education funding increases in recent memory.

Republican
Senate:
21 Democrats
15 Republicans

House:
96 Democrats
55 Republicans

Enrollment:
576,510

Lawmakers approved a fiscal 2004 budget of $12.4 billion, including $2.01 billion for precollegiate education. That’s up from $1.99 billion the previous year, about a one percent hike. State spending on schools is set to inch up another one percent in fiscal 2005, to $2.03 billion, under the biennial plan.

Agreement on the budget followed prolonged debate as policymakers sought to balance the books despite sagging tax revenues. Legislators missed a June 30 deadline for producing a spending plan, prompting Gov. John G. Rowland to issue executive orders to reconvene the legislature and keep the government operating. Gov. Rowland finally signed a deal in mid-August.

The plan pumps $1.5 billion in fiscal 2004 into the state’s educational equalization grants, which Connecticut uses to hike districts’ spending on disadvantaged students. The allocation marks a $6 million increase over the fiscal 2003 figure, but no further increase is planned for the grants in fiscal 2005.

Magnet schools are one of the few big winners in the spending plan; they are slated to receive $58.8 million and $72.6 million in fiscal years 2004 and 2005, respectively, up from $44.8 million last year. The increases reflect additional schools that the state pledged to fund under a settlement announced earlier this year in Connecticut’s long-running school desegregation case, known as Sheff v. O’Neill.

Along with an austere budget, lawmakers passed a measure to let retired educators return to the classroom to teach subjects experiencing a shortage of teachers for up to an entire year without losing pension benefits, instead of just for part of a year, as the law had allowed. Another new law approved during the session creates new standards for schools’ indoor-air quality.

—Jeff Archer

Nevada

Lawmakers’ Tussle
Ripples Across Districts

Nevada school officials found themselves caught in the middle of a legislative standoff this summer that threw K-12 education funding into limbo.

Republican
Senate:
8 Democrats
13 Republicans

House:
23 Democrats
19 Republicans

Enrollment:
380,000

Legislators deadlocked over a record $860 million tax increase to balance the state’s two-year budget. What ensued was a bitter, 49-day battle between the two legislative chambers as well as several lawsuits. The situation forced some school districts to delay hiring, shift specialty teachers into regular classrooms, and even postpone the start of the new school year.

When the dust finally settled, the legislature passed an $836 million tax increase and approved $1.63 billion for K-12 education over the 2004 and 2005 fiscal years, a slight increase over the previous biennium.

The new state budget offers several boosts for teachers by providing a 4.75 percent cost-of-living adjustment over the next two years, nearly $10 million in signing bonuses for new teachers, and retirement incentives designed to keep teachers in low- performing schools.

The legislative outcome was not as favorable for the state’s charter schools. Several bills, including one that would have allowed charter schools access to school bond money to help pay for building costs, were killed before they ever reached the floor.

Legislators also granted school districts with fewer than 100,000 students the option of applying for a four-day school week and approved preliminary fiscal and management audits of the Washoe and Clark County districts, a move backed by teachers’ unions.

While there were no major education cuts on the state level, some districts were forced to cut their spending for textbooks, extracurricular activities, and travel.

“It was a bittersweet victory,” said Carlos Garcia, the superintendent of the Clark County school system, which includes Las Vegas. “We got a budget, but we didn’t get all we needed to get the job done.” The district, which expects to serve 265,000 students this fall, has seen cuts of $97 million in state aid from its budget over the past two years.

“This was such a critical session, but the [legislature] didn’t develop a long range fix for education,” Mr. Garcia said.

—Marianne D. Hurst

New Jersey

School Aid Hikes: Little
Or Nothing in 2003-04

A five-month budget battle in New Jersey ended when Gov. James E. McGreevey signed a $24 billion spending plan on July 1. The budget sets aside $8.1 billion for all categories of state spending on preschool through secondary school in the new fiscal year.

Democrat
Senate:
20 Democrats
20 Republicans

House:
45 Democrats
35 Republicans

Enrollment:
1.4 million

The fiscal 2004 budget reflects an increase of 1.7 percent over 2002-03 school spending. It will give most districts only a small increase over the previous year, and the wealthiest districts no increase.

Democrats had proposed more than $800 million in a variety of taxes and fees to help close a budget gap of about $5 billion, but compromised at $600 million after Republican objections.

The new fees or taxes will apply to lodging, cigarettes, utility bills, and sales of new homes. Nursing homes and casinos will also have to pay new fees.

The new budget follows one in which school spending was held level. The bleak statewide economic picture prompted many New Jersey school districts to raise local property taxes during the 2002- 03 school year, and statewide, such taxes rose an average of 7 percent, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

That pressure on local taxpayers has fueled an already heated debate about a need for property- tax reform. Legislators are considering holding a special session on a tax overhaul or putting a referendum on the state ballot to let voters decide whether to call a constitutional convention to rewrite property-tax laws.

—Catherine Gewertz

Oklahoma

Special Education Bears
Brunt of State Aid Cuts

Reconciling a 5 percent deficit in their $4.4 billion state budget was the top priority for legislators in Oklahoma this year, and education was not spared the ax.

Democrat
Senate:
28 Democrats
20 Republicans

House:
52 Democrats
48 Republicans

Enrollment:
624,000

Precollegiate education took a major funding hit during fiscal 2003, when $56.3 million was cut from the schools’ $2 billion state budget.

For fiscal 2004, the appropriation for pre-K-12 education dropped to $1.9 billion, a 4.4 percent decrease from the fiscal 2003 appropriation.

Many of the program cuts as part of the funding reduction came from special education. For example, legislators saved $5.6 million by closing down all of the state’s regional education centers, which served as resources for districts in identifying students for special education and writing individualized education plans for them.

The legislature also cut an $842,000 program that provided specialized testing for such students and a $1.13 million program that provided services to students who were homebound because of health conditions.

Special education was not the only program hit. Funding for an Advanced Placement program offered by the College Board was cut from $3.9 million to $1.8 million, and state aid for staff development was cut by 54 percent, to $2.3 million.

Aside from wrestling with the budget, legislators passed a controversial education lottery bill. In the November 2004 general election, voters will decide if the state should establish a lottery, the proceeds from which would supplement the education budget.

—Michelle Galley

Rhode Island

School Spending Edges Upward

In passing a state spending plan for fiscal 2004 that includes $778 million for precollegiate education, Rhode Island lawmakers this summer ignored many cost-savings ideas pitched by Gov. Donald L. Carcieri.

Republican
Senate:
32 Democrats
6 Republicans

House:
63 Democrats
11 Republicans
1 Independent

Enrollment:
158,046

The K-12 budget marks a 5 percent hike over last year’s allocation of $741 million and guarantees each local district a minimum 1.75 percent increase in state aid. The Republican governor, a former corporate executive in his first term, had suggested level funding of state aid to school systems. He also wanted teachers to pay more toward their pensions, but the legislature shot down the plan.

And after Mr. Carcieri vetoed the legislature’s total $2.9 billion state spending plan, he was overridden by the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.

The budget will send $5.7 million—compared with $4 million in fiscal 2003—to the state’s Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, which runs urban high schools that stress individualized instruction and project-based learning. Charter school funding also will jump from $9.5 million in fiscal 2003 to $12.4 million in fiscal 2004. Both increases reflect enrollment growth.

Lawmakers also added $600,000 to the $500,000 budgeted last year for efforts by the Rhode Island education department to provide technical support for low-performing schools. Most of the new dollars are for Providence’s Hope High School, where state officials are intervening to restructure programs.

Among the few education bills that passed, one requires districts to adopt anti-bullying policies, and another closes a loophole that had allowed educators who failed the state’s licensing exam to continue teaching.

The legislature also agreed to form study groups to examine the feasibility of a statewide teachers’ contract and to propose a new formula for doling out state aid to school systems.

—Jeff Archer


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