Gov. George E. Pataki of New York called on lawmakers last week to revamp the state’s complicated education funding formula to give local districts more control over how they spend their state aid.
The proposal was immediately met by skepticism from both sides of the aisle.
In his seventh State of the State Address, the Republican governor linked increased aid with local flexibility and accountability. He promised to once again push the state’s education spending to its highest level in the coming fiscal year, topping this year’s $13.6 billion.
But he said more money should come with fewer strings from the state and greater accountability to the public. To that end, he said, he would work to put big-city school systems under the control of their mayors, a proposal he championed last year as well.
In his broad-ranging speech, Mr. Pataki trained the brightest spotlight on school finance. His speech came as state leaders are awaiting a ruling in a lawsuit charging that the state’s funding system perennially shortchanges the 1.1 million-student New York City district.
“Let’s leave the old, convoluted school aid formula on the ash heap of history,” the governor declared, “and instead put children and teachers first, and paperwork and bureaucracy last.” He said he wanted to combine 11 of the existing formulas into a single funding source, accounting for nearly $10 billion annually in aid.
And yet New York legislative leaders of both parties cautioned that changing the current system would be tough because of its delicate political balance.
“It’s a very complex issue,” cautioned Republican Sen. John R. Kuhl Jr., the chairman of the Senate education committee. “Most of the formulas have been crafted to deal with specific situations” in very different school districts.
Democrats also said the change might be designed to obscure proposed funding cutbacks, particularly for pre-kindergarten expansion and class-size reduction. “I think the net result is going to be less money going to the districts that need it most,” said Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the chairman of the lower house’s education committee.
A spokeswoman for New York’s local school boards applauded the governor’s move toward greater local control. But, like the legislators, she said the boards were waiting to see Mr. Pataki’s budget proposal.
“We’re encouraged by his proposal, but what we have to see is the details,” said Barbara L. Bradley of the New York State School Boards Association.
Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which filed the funding lawsuit that would benefit New York City, said the proposal did not go far enough. “If this thing’s a dinosaur, why are we continuing to deal with it at all?” he said.
“Let’s just throw it out” in favor of a total overhaul, he suggested.
Also in the funding realm, Mr. Pataki called for a cap on annual spending increases by school districts at 4 percent, or 120 percent of the increase in the consumer price index for the prior year, whichever was less. Under the governor’s plan, the cap could be overridden only if two-thirds of voters in a local election agreed.
Also on Gov. Pataki’s wish list were expansions of the program for teacher recruitment, retention, and training he successfully launched last year and of a statewide after-school program. Mr. Pataki also said he wanted school districts to publish “report cards” on the state of their facilities.
Rowland Calls for Fiscal Restraint
If Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland is planning any significant new education initiatives for the coming year, he gave few clues in his Jan. 3 State of the State Address.
Instead, the second-term Republican governor pledged to not “retreat from our commitment of quality education,” while at the same time being guided by a principle of “fiscal restraint.”
Although Connecticut has amassed a budget surplus nearing $500 million, the state government also must operate under a legislated cap that restricts increases in its operating budget. Mr. Rowland made clear he would oppose overall funding increases beyond the limits imposed by the cap. The state’s surplus, he said, “is not an open credit line, to be used without penalty, at the mall of new government programs.”
He did promise, though, that the budget proposals he plans to unveil next month would include new money aimed at helping those in the state’s low-income and urban areas—programs that could help address one of the state’s most vexing education challenges. While Connecticut students overall rank at the top of the country in many national assessments, the state has yet to reduce substantially the gaps in performance between its rich and poor communities.
“Rankings make us feel good,” the governor said. “But knowing that every child has the opportunity to learn from the best teachers in the best schools should really make us proud.”
In ‘Off’ Budget Year, Patton Seeks Continuity
Kicking off the state’s first off-year legislative session, Gov. Paul E. Patton of Kentucky announced no new education initiatives in his Jan. 3 State of the State Address, but pledged to keep pressure on state officials to carry out the state’s far-reaching, decade-old school improvement drive.
Traditionally, this would have been an off year for the Kentucky legislature. But a constitutional amendment approved last fall by voters directed lawmakers to convene annually, starting this year.
It is not, however, the session for major initiatives, because the state’s two-year budget was approved last year. And any adjustments to the spending plan in an off year would require the approval of 60 percent of the legislators.
Still, Gov. Patton repeated, as he has since taking office as governor in 1996, that education would be at the heart of his administration. “It will always be our primary focus,” he said.
He praised recent improvements in student performance that are part of the landmark 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act. “Test scores are up,” he declared. “Our classrooms are the most technologically advanced in the nation. We continue to be a national model.”
He promised as well to keep an eye on the progress of a $23 million plan to improve teacher training statewide that was passed last year.
Perhaps the most significant announcement in last week’s speech was Mr. Patton’s call on the legislature to form a task force to draft a tax-reform plan that could be voted on in next year’s session. The plan would not change spending totals, but would redistribute how state taxes were paid, a spokesman for the governor said.
—Robert C. Johnston
Ventura Pushes Greater Funding Role
Gov. Jesse Ventura dedicated a large part of his State of the State Address to reiterating his call for overhauling Minnesota’s tax system.
That plan, first unveiled in September, in part calls for moving the cost of K-12 education from the local property-tax base to the state, while districts would still be responsible for raising revenue for new buildings and general operating costs that exceeded the state’s basic funding allotment.
“Combined with other changes to the property-tax system, this will result in net property-tax relief of over $800 million annually to all types of property across Minnesota,” the first-term governor, an Independent, said in his speech last week.
Mr. Ventura also hinted for the first time at how he would pay for the shift in education costs, saying he wanted the state “to rely more on sales tax, and less on the income and property taxes in the future.”
Beyond the question of how to pay for education, the governor said his budget for the coming fiscal year would focus resources on teachers—recruiting them, training them, and paying them. But he also vowed that any spending increases would be targeted at schools that showed results.
“This last biennium, with tripartisan support, we increased K-12 spending by $1.3 billion,” he said. “Still, most school districts would like more. But I am skeptical because I believe that most districts have not shown taxpayers the benefit of the last budget increase.”
Mr. Ventura said his budget proposal recommends “supporting those districts that think and act outside of the box.”
—Darcia Harris Bowman
Musgrove Wants To Lift Bar
To Teacher Raises
In his Jan. 4 State of the State Address, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove of Mississippi touted the progress the state’s lawmakers made last year in enacting a new school-based accountability system, and asked them to continue to make education their top priority.
One way to do that, he said, would be to remove a requirement tacked on to a package of teacher-salary increases passed last spring. For teachers to receive promised pay raises, the requirement stipulates, state revenues must increase by 5 percent annually.
“The 5 percent condition on pay raises for teachers isn’t a commitment; it’s an excuse,” Mr. Musgrove contended.
The Democratic governor, starting his second year in office, also noted that Mississippi is not alone in experiencing slowed economic growth, and he urged lawmakers not to gut funding for the state program that provides basic aid to school districts.
“During this critical legislative session, we can’t waste our time whining about why not,” Mr. Musgrove said. “We have the resources and the responsibility to do what we need to do.”
—Jessica L. Sandham
Shaheen Calls Funding ‘Overriding Priority’
Accused of ducking her state’s school finance problems during her recent re- election campaign, New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen pledged in her inaugural address last week to offer a permanent solution in the next few weeks to her state’s long-running funding problems.
The state has been embroiled in legal challenges to its school finance system for at least a decade, and resolving the problem was a central issue in the state’s gubernatorial campaign this past fall, in which Ms. Shaheen won a third two-year term. (“N.H. Race for Governor Focusing on Funding,” Sept.6, 2000.)
But the governor, a Democrat, declined to address the crisis during the campaign, saying she was awaiting a report from a blue-ribbon panel she had appointed to study the economic ramifications of the issue. That report is due out this week.
In her Jan. 4 speech, however, Ms. Shaheen exhorted lawmakers to put their differences aside and make resolving the school finance issue their “overriding priority” this legislative session.
“Without a permanent solution this year, the state’s bond ratings and strong fiscal position will be jeopardized,” she said. “But even more important, without a permanent solution, New Hampshire’s public schools—and therefore our prosperity—will be threatened.”
A spokesman for the New Hampshire affiliate of the National Education Association, which reluctantly supported the governor for re- election, called the speech “excellent.”
“She set a fine tune for an atmosphere to finally find a solution to the state’s funding dilemma,” said Dennis E. Murphy, a spokesman for the teachers’ union.
Ms. Shaheen also hinted that she would try for a third time to push through a measure to make schools more accountable for meeting high academic standards.
Also, echoing a theme she is pushing this year as the chairwoman of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, the governor prodded the legislature to focus on early-childhood issues and to extend the state’s ongoing kindergarten- construction program so that “every 5-year-old in New Hampshire has the opportunity to attend public kindergarten.’'
She also called for expanding the state’s child-health-insurance program, which now serves 12,000 previously uninsured children.
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as N.Y. Governor Wants To Scrap Finance System