Capitol Recap

June 09, 2004 8 min read
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The following offers highlights of the recent legislative sessions. Precollegiate enrollment figures are based on fall 2003 data reported by state officials for public elementary and secondary schools. The figures for precollegiate education spending do not include federal flow-through funds, unless noted.

Alabama | Colorado | Georgia | Minnesota | Tennessee


Spending Cuts Restored
In Fiscal 2005 Budget

After several tough years for state spending on elementary and secondary education, including a slight dip last year, the fiscal 2005 budget for Alabama signed last month by Gov. Bob Riley delivers a nearly 9 percent increase.

The budget restores a round of cuts from last year for textbooks, school libraries, teacher professional development, and educational technology, and more than triples spending on the state’s popular reading program.

25 Democrats
10 Republicans

63 Democrats
42 Republicans

732,400 (K-12)

“The crowning achievement of this budget is it fully funds the Alabama Reading Initiative at the $40 million amount I first requested in my State of the State Address,” Gov. Riley said in a written statement.

Compared to the last few years, it’s a pretty good budget,” said Susan Salter, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Association of School Boards.

In all, the state will spend $3.27 billion on K-12 education, an increase of $260 million, or about 9 percent. About half the increase, however, would pay for large estimated cost increases in the state’s teacher-insurance and -retirement programs.

The budget became final eight months after Alabama voters rejected Gov. Riley’s plan to rewrite the state tax code and raise an extra $1.2 billion a year for schools and other social programs, and add accountability measures for state government and education. (“Alabama Voters Reject Gov. Riley’s Tax Plan,” Sept. 17, 2003.) The legislature approved an element of that package that will change the process for firing, transferring, and disciplining school employees.

The plan—backed by the Alabama Education Association—abolishes the State Tenure Commission this summer and uses an independent arbiter to settle disputes between districts and teachers. The AEA argued that the new plan will save time and money.

Ms. Salter of the school boards’ group disagrees. “It will not be cheaper, faster, or easier” to dismiss poorly performing teachers, she said.

—Erik W. Robelen


K-12 School Aid Up;
Higher Ed. Vouchers Pass

Once again, Amendment 23 has come to the rescue of Colorado’s public schools.

The 2000 voter-approved constitutional amendment—which some legislators sought to repeal this year—guaranteed that schools received a spending increase at least equal to the rate of inflation plus 1 percent. The legislature passed a 2.8 percent funding increase for K-12 schools—raising the state education budget by 2 percent, to $4.4 billion.

18 Democrats
18 Republicans

28 Democrats
37 Republicans

728,500 (K-12)

Lawmakers rejected an amendment that would have suspended Amendment 23 until 2007 and in any subsequent year in which state spending declined.

In one of its most significant actions of the year, the legislature adopted a college voucher program. Under the new law, which goes into effect in the fall of 2005, undergraduate students enrolled in a state university or one of three private institutions in Colorado will be eligible to receive a $2,400 tuition stipend. (“Colo. Approves Higher Education Vouchers,” May 5, 2004.)

Vouchers for K-12 students, however, continued to be a major issue.

With the statewide voucher program that the legislature passed in 2003 now tied up in the courts, lawmakers tried—and failed—to come up with alternate legislation that would pass legal muster.

By contrast, charter school advocates declared victory after lawmakers approved an independent chartering authority. The new panel, its proponents say, will prevent school districts from declaring moratoriums on charter schools. Previously, charter schools could be authorized only by local school districts.

—Marianne D. Hurst


Minor Changes Made
To HOPE Program

Despite a task force’s recommendations last fall on ways to tighten the eligibility for Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships to cut costs, the legislature has only slightly modified the popular program.

For starters, instead of having at least a B average when they graduate from high school, students will be required to earn at least a 3.0 grade point average to qualify for the college scholarships, beginning in the summer of 2007.

26 Democrats
30 Republicans

103 Democrats
76 Republicans
1 Independent

1.5 million (K-12)

Lawmakers made the change, in part, because a B grade often did not equate across schools.

And while the task force recommended eliminating the money provided to HOPE scholars for textbooks and college fees, the lawmakers instead approved a series of spending triggers tied to lottery revenues, which pay for the HOPE program.

The amounts granted for fees will be capped at the level they were on Jan. 1. If colleges increase those fees, students will have to make up the difference. If lottery funds drop from one year to the next, book fees will be capped at $150. If state lottery revenues don’t improve, book and student fees could be eliminated.

The state’s fiscal 2005 budget of $16.37 billion—which was passed after a special session of the legislature in May— includes $6.2 billion for K-12 education, an increase of $24 million, which is a hike of 4 percent over fiscal 2004.

The education budget includes $87 million for a 2 percent raise for teachers. Teachers with 21 or more years of experience will receive raises of 3 percent.

The legislature also passed Gov. Sonny Perdue’s education package, which includes a requirement that 3rd graders pass a state reading test to be promoted to 4th grade. Pupils who fail the test will be placed in transitional classes.

A class-size-reduction plan already in place for kindergarten through 3rd grade will be delayed in grades 4-12 because of limited money for new classrooms.

—Linda Jacobson


Yecke Vote, Standards
Top Legislative Actions

In Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s view, the passage of new academic standards for science and social studies was one of the few accomplishments of the 2004 legislative session.

Minnesota is entering the second fiscal year of a $28.8 billion biennial budget, after all, so K-12 education was already funded at $12.3 billion over the two years. There is usually a supplementary budget for the second year, observers say, but this session ended with no finance bills passing.

35 Democrats
31 Republicans
1 Independent

53 Democrats
81 Republicans

845,000 (K-12)

Granted, Senate Democrats did spend a lot of time over the past few months debating whether or not to confirm Mr. Pawlenty’s education commissioner, Cheri Pierson Yecke, in her job. But their final action on that matter—booting Ms. Yecke from the position she had held for 15 months, on a party-line vote—was not something the governor considered an accomplishment. (“Minn. Senate Democrats Dump Yecke as Education Chief,” May 26, 2004.)

“When I asked Dr. Yecke to move home to Minnesota to lead our administration’s education reform efforts, the number- one challenge I laid out was to repeal the Profile of Learning and replace it with real standards,” said the Republican governor at a May 26 bill-signing ceremony.

“Some might say it was the enormity of the task that made her the target of such bitter partisanship,” Mr. Pawlenty said.

The Democratic- controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House wrangled over the benchmarks, particularly when it came to what students should be taught about civics, economics, and U.S. and world history.

In the end, the two chambers settled on a compromise between their competing plans.

—Darcia Harris Bowman


K-12 Budget Hike
Includes Raises

Tennessee lawmakers received a pleasant surprise as they were wrapping up this year’s legislative session last month—a surplus of about $200 million from higher-than-expected tax collections.

Those funds in part allowed the appropriators to scale back from 9 percent to 7 percent the projected tuition increases for the state’s higher education institutions.

18 Democrats
15 Republicans

54 Democrats
45 Republicans

908,000 (K-12)

As part of the $24.1 billion total budget for fiscal 2005, $108 million will go to K-12 teachers for a 2 percent raise and a onetime bonus of 2 percent. Another $37 million will go toward a plan proposed by Gov. Phil Bredesen to help equalize pay for teachers across the state, mainly in impoverished rural districts, as ordered by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Total K-12 education funding for fiscal 2005 is $3.8 billion, or a 5 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

For the first time, this year’s graduating high school seniors can tap into state lottery money for college scholarships.

The lottery, which began in February, offers a program modeled after neighbor Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships, which give tuition aid to graduates to attend state universities.

Much of this year’s legislative debate centered on how to distribute the scholarship aid fairly. Lawmakers ultimately decided to give the awards to public school and home-schooled students who graduate with at least a 3.0 grade point average and score a 21 or higher out of a possible 36 on the ACT college-entrance exam.

Gov. Bredesen also signed a bill that allows only nutritious foods, such as juices, nuts, and dairy products, to be sold in school vending machines during school hours.

—Joetta L. Sack

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2004 edition of Education Week as Capitol Recap


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