Vermont | West Virginia
In Tight Times, Davis Makes Schools a Priority
Even as California lawmakers begin a special session to grapple with the grim realities of a $12.2 billion budget shortfall, Gov. Gray Davis struck an optimistic tone in his State of the State Address last week.
The Democratic governor, who faces a re-election campaign this year, declared that his spending proposal for the upcoming fiscal year would not increase taxes and would protect education “above everything else in my budget.”
“I have asked you to reduce some of the budget augmentations we made last year,” Gov. Davis said, referring to his November proposal for more than $800 million in cuts to K-12 programs in the current budget. Those reductions will be addressed in the special session that is running concurrently with the regular session that began Jan. 9, the day after the governor’s speech.
“But I will fight to protect those investments vital to the classroom itself, where teachers and students learn,” Mr. Davis said.
Still, some legislators asked whether the governor’s speech painted too rosy a picture, given the state’s fiscal crisis.
“It raises more questions than it answers,” said Sen. John Vasconcellos, a Democrat. “He pledges to protect education, public safety, public health, and local governments, with no tax increase. That constitutes 95 percent of the state budget, so where you get $12 billion out of that, I have no idea.”
Under Mr. Davis’ budget proposal, spending on K-12 schools would total $53.9 billion for the 2003 fiscal year, approximately $1 billion more than school funding levels for the current year—even after the proposed midyear budget cuts are factored in. Per-pupil spending would increase as well in the next year, from $6,922 to $7,058, a 2 percent rise.
The budget would also provide $162.8 million for before- and after-school programs, a $75 million increase over the current year. In addition, the governor proposed a long-term solution to the state’s ongoing school facilities shortage by urging the legislature to allow statewide votes on $30 billion in construction bonds over three general elections. The money would go to build and modernize schools.
“If we are committed to quality in our classrooms, we also have to be committed to the quality of our classrooms,” said Secretary of Education Kerry Mazzoni, a former Democratic state legislator appointed by Mr. Davis.
Gov. Davis also proposed consolidating funds for standards-based instructional materials and library programs into one block grant to give school districts greater spending flexibility, while also incrementally increasing funding for materials from $250 million in the current fiscal year to $600 million by 2007.
Scott P. Plotkin, the executive director of the California School Boards Association, said that he was pleased that the governor intends to make education spending a top priority in the coming fiscal year.
“We couldn’t have asked for much more than that, considering the circumstances,” Mr. Plotkin said.
He noted, though, that education advocates continue to have concerns about some of the reductions included in the $844 million worth of cuts to K-12 spending in the current fiscal year that Gov. Davis has proposed.
In the shadow of the $12.2 billion shortfall, legislators began their special session, in which they will take up the governor’s proposed spending cuts.
A majority of the cuts target would money for new programs, or additions to existing programs that have not yet gotten under way and therefore would not hurt districts’ current bottom lines, Mr. Plotkin said.
However, the funds for two of the programs on the chopping block—a $40 million plan to help equalize spending by school districts and a $35 million initiative to freeze schools’ contribution to the state’s retirement system for public employees—have already been committed as a part of current district budgets, he added.
Given that the cuts would come midway through the school year, Mr. Plotkin said, their impact on district budgets would be greater.
“When you’re talking about making cuts on districts halfway through the school year, in reality you’re talking about twice the cut,” he said.
Democratic Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin agreed that the governor’s proposed cut of the hard-won, $40 million equalization program would likely spark debate.
“It was the beginning of a long-term approach to solving a problem that’s been nagging at us,” Ms. Strom-Martin said, noting that the plan would have provided $40 million a year over 10 years to equalize spending between affluent and poor districts.
“This is not just something that they’re going to delay—they’ve put it off the table right now,” she said, referring to the Davis administration. “I know for a fact that’s going to upset a number of members.”
—Jessica L. Sandham
Siegelman Wants Constitution Rewrite
Alabama Gov. Donald Siegelman made education the focal point of his sharply-worded State of the State Address last week, lashing out at “special interests” that he said undermine the state’s ability to adequately fund education and calling for a rewrite of the state constitution to address the matter.
“If we ever want to fund our schools the way we should, if we ever want to make our tax system fair, we have to rip the power out of the hands of the special interests, get it out of Montgomery, and give it back to the people,” he said in his fourth such address.
But the Democratic governor, however, provided few details for such a plan and did not identify the targets of his ire, other than by making references to out-of-state companies with interests in Alabama.
For starters, though, he urged the legislature to put a measure on the November state ballot that calls for a constitutional convention. Voters will decide whether to re-elect Mr. Siegelman to a second term in the same general election.
The proposal reflects Mr. Siegelman’s frustration that “for too long and in too many ways, the legislature has held us back” because of influence from special interests, said Rip Andrews, a spokesman for the governor.
Gov. Siegleman did not discuss his fiscal 2003 budget, which has not been released.
Alabama’s has recently faced tough economic times, which have weighed heavily on schools. In the middle of last school year, the state issued across-the-board cuts to education, as required by law, because the sales and income taxes that feed the state’s Education Trust Fund fell short.
A similar shortfall was predicted for this fiscal year, but midyear cuts were apparently averted when the legislature agreed in December to a package of mostly tax-related measures to produce $162 million in revenue and savings. Gov. Siegelman pushed hard for action to prevent the school cuts., but opposed some of the tax changes approved, especially a phone tax.
The governor last week also pledged his support for ending a state policy that requires communities to get legislative approval before placing measures on local ballots to raise taxes for education.
“Our outdated constitution forces local communities to come to Montgomery hat in hand, to beg the legislature and the special interests just to have the right to vote on whether they can make changes in their local schools,” he said.
—Erik W. Robelen
Owens Gives Plaudits, Seeks Little in Speech
Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado has lauded state legislators lawmakers for their work on education over the plast two years, saying that their efforts have placed the state ahead of the curve in terms of complying with the accountability requirements of the new federal education law.
In his Jan. 10 State of the State Address, the Republican governor said Colorado has bridged the gap between “two opposite positions—one proposing more funding with no structural change and accountability, the other demanding structural change and accountability without the money needed to make those changes work.”
In 2000, the legislature passed a major education law that increased testing and accountability requirements. Lawmakers fine-tuned the law last year, and they provided a boost in school funding.
“It is no accident that much of what is in the national education act just signed by President Bush—concepts such as standards, accountability, and testing—are already in place and working here in Colorado,” the governor added in his speech.
Mr. Owens had little to say in his speech about new education initiatives. He said legislators will need to spend much of their time on budget and economic matters. State revenues are expected to be more than $500 million less than estimates of six months ago.
Despite recent belt-tightening measures in state government, the governor’s proposed budget includes an 8.7 increase in K-12 spending.
The only new education-related proposal the governor mentioned in the speech was his proposal to require school and library computers to be equipped with filtering technology.
“It is essential that we take steps to shield children using taxpayer-funded computers from being exposed to pornography, hate, and violence,” he said.
Most schools nationwide face a federal mandate to install Internet filtering software by this July.
Belt-Tightening Next, Kempthorne Warns
One year ago, legislators in Idaho debated how to spend the largest budget surplus the state had ever seen. Today, the state is suffering from revenue shortfalls, holdbacks, and budget cuts, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said in his State of the State Address last week.
To deal with those shortfalls, Gov. Kempthorne, a Republican, is asking most state agencies—excluding the state education department—to trim their budgets by an average of 10 percent.
He also pledged in his Jan. 7 speech not to raise taxes this year.
Mr. Kempthorne’s proposed fiscal 2003 budget, which he released Jan. 9, calls for funding to help the state complete its academic standards and accountability system by 2005.
He also announced plans to establish a mathematics academy for teachers of that subject in grades 5-8 statewide, beginning this summer. The academy will be designed and run through a partnership of the governor’s office, the education department, and private industry, he said.
The governor pledged funding for the Promise Scholarships, a program that grants a $500 scholarship to every Idaho high school graduate who earns a B average or better to help pay for enrollment in a public college in the state.
Last fall, more than 5,000 students received the aid and attended college in Idaho, he said.
Gov. Kempthorne also noted that the state last September hosted its first conference addressing the subject of children’s mental health, and that it has published a mental-health guide on children for parents.
Ventura Challenges Lawmakers on Budget
Gov. Jesse Ventura used his State of the State Address Jan. 3 to warn Minnesota lawmakers: Either they will immediately deal with the state’s projected $1.95 billion deficit, or he will.
And while his speech was heavy on warnings, it was light on policy initiatives, including any on schools.
“If, after the first week of the session, the legislature is not ready to begin taking action, I assure you that I will not stand by and watch our state’s fiscal integrity be dragged into a political quagmire,” said Mr. Ventura, an Independent.
“At the appropriate time, I will begin using my executive powers to begin cutting our expenses and avoid a budget deficit made worse by inaction,” he added.
The governor said that a combination of tax increases and spending cuts was likely the only solution to the looming budget shortfall, but that neither would be easy.
Five spending areas—health care, social services, higher education, K-12 education, and aid to local governments— account for 85 percent of the state government’s $28 billion in annual spending. The two education budgets alone consume nearly 50 percent of the general fund.
So, when it comes to spending cuts, Mr. Ventura said, there will be no “sacred cows.”
As for tax increases, the governor said he would fight any effort to undo tax changes enacted last year, including his plan that shifted most day-to-day education costs from local property taxes to the state.
But he did not rule out a gasoline tax, a cigarette tax, an extension of the sales tax to clothing, or revival of an earlier administration proposal to lower the sales tax but extend it to new types of services.
The Ventura administration was expected to unveil its own plan to close the budget deficit late last week.
—Darcia Harris Bowman
Pataki Backs New Mayor On Control of City Schools
Gov. George E. Pataki championed the heroes of Sept. 11 in his State of the State Address last week, proclaiming his confidence that “the heroic spirit that guided us through this disaster will guide us to a brighter tomorrow.”
The Republican governor acknowledged that New York is faced with an economic crisis as a result of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the ailing national economy, but he said that the state would not slash the education budget in the middle of the school year or take other “irresponsible” actions.
In addition, he said he would fight for tax cuts in the coming year. The details of his plans are likely to be part of his fiscal 2003 budget, to be released later this month.
“Our choices are limited to two,” the governor said in the Jan. 9 speech. “Either we control the crisis, or the crisis will control us.”
Gov. Pataki also signaled that he would fight for mayoral control of the state’s large urban school districts, referring to New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s call for such control in his inaugural address. “The public, through the mayor, must control the school system,” Mr. Bloomberg said when he was sworn in to office on Jan. 1.
Mr. Pataki agreed.
“Mayor, you are right,” the governor said in his address last week. “Real education reform means giving you and the mayors of other big cities that control. I will fight to give you that power this year.”
As he did in his State of the State Address last year, the governor also urged lawmakers to craft a more flexible and more equitable school aid formula “without pitting one school district against another.”
That statement came in response to a proposal by the state board of regents, unveiled last month, that would send large aid increases to the state’s high-need urban and rural districts, while eliminating a provision that protects suburban districts against reductions in state aid.
Timothy G. Kremer, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said he supports the governor’s call for reform of the state’s funding system, but not his pitch for mayoral control of city districts.
“Replacing publicly elected school boards with those appointed by big-city mayors ... would invite political interference in education,” Mr. Kremer said in a statement.
— Jessica L. Samdham
Dean Wants Agreement on School Funding Issues
In his 11th and final State of the State Address, Gov. Howard Dean asked the Vermont legislature to seek a compromise and resolve lingering issues involving Act 60, the state’s controversial school finance overhaul.
He did not offer his own specific remedy, however, for tweaking the 5-year-old law, which introduced a statewide property tax that many wealthy towns detest.
Last year, legislative debate centered on coming up with a compromise plan to restructure the so-called sharing pool, which requires well-to-do communities to share additional revenues they raise with other towns.
“I believe a compromise can be reached,” Gov. Dean said during the Jan. 8 speech. “Not only is this the right thing to do, this will help put the controversy over education funding behind us.”
Mr. Dean, a Democrat who has announced that this will be his final year as governor, also promised to present a fair and balanced budget to legislators in the coming weeks.
Vermont, which has faced a recession for several years, is still trying to make rescissions to its fiscal 2002 budget—including likely cuts in school spending. The state’s 2003 revenue projections could be delayed by several weeks until that process is completed.
As part of that new budget, the governor will propose that $500,000 be reallocated within the state health and human services agency for a new program addressing the needs of “high risk” youths, those with emotional, physical, or other difficulties.
A medical doctor by profession who has consistently made health care a top legislative priority, Gov. Dean focused much of his speech on a plan for health-care reform. He vowed to continue efforts to help pay for health insurance for children.
—Joetta L. Sack
Wise Promises Raises for State’s Teachers
In a time of war and recession, improvement in education means economic development, Gov. Bob Wise, declared last week.
Speaking in his State of the State Address Jan. 9, the West Virginia Democrat proposed requiring a 180-day school year throughout the state. He said not all counties in West Virginia currently meet that standard. The state’s schools have fallen behind those in other states in the amount of time students spend in the classroom, Mr. Wise said.
“We can’t teach our kids if they are not in the classroom,” he said.
Teachers will be able to get a pay raise this year of about $1,200 each, thanks to restraints in spending by other state agencies, Gov. Wise said, though he suggested that increase still was not enough.
“Our state budget simply cannot be stretched to accommodate what our teachers truly deserve,” he said.
The pay-raise proposal, which is included in his fiscal 2003 budget plan, seeks to build on the progress in teacher pay made last year, when teachers got $1,000 raises.
Mr. Wise said his budget proposal includes funding to advance the Educare Program, an early- childhood-education initiative that coordinates and promotes preschool activities for 4-year-olds.
The governor also highlighted achievements in K- 12 education in the state.
“We’re building new state-of-the-art schools for communities across West Virginia,” he said. “We’re also making sure our schools are safe.”
West Virginia has started a 24-hour school safety “help line.” In addition, every county has a mandate to provide character education that teaches students respect and responsibility, Gov. Wise noted.
Last year, 31 additional West Virginia teachers earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, doubling the number of nationally certified teachers in the state. The governor attributed the rise in the number of certified teachers to incentives provided by the legislature.
As a sign of the West Virginia business community’s appreciation for teachers, this year’s state teacher of the year got a special send-off in the speech.
Teacher Jeanne Gren of Woodburn Elementary School in Monongalia County drove away from the governor’s speech in a new Toyota awarded to her.
“We thank you and all our educators for the difference you are making in our children’s lives,” Mr. Wise said.
A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as State of the States