States Education Issues

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Facing a current-year deficit estimated at $69 million, Idaho's legislature has passed a one-cent increase in the state sales tax, effective March 1 through June 1984. Many school districts, however, will continue to have financial problems for the remainder of this academic year because the proceeds from the tax increase will not be available until summer.

The increase notwithstanding, the public-education budget may be cut substantially for the fiscal year 1984. Late last month, a budget bill was introduced pegging education at $195 million--some $20 million below the appropriation for the current fiscal year. The figure represents an across-the-board reduction in state spending, education officials said; schools would continue to receive about 47 percent of a shrinking state budget.

The Alaska legislature has approved a $25.5-million supplemental appropriation for education in the current fiscal year to compensate for an unexpected increase in enrollment due mainly to the state's assumption of responsibility for schools formerly administered by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

For the fiscal year 1984, Gov. Bill Sheffield has requested a slight increase in spending. "It's pretty much a maintenance budget," said Harry Gamble of the state education department. "Oil revenues are declining. Competition among state agencies for state funds is becoming pretty intense. Here at education, we don't expect to see the 5-to-10 percent increase in state funds that we were used to seeing for the past 10 years."

The Governor has encouraged state agencies to cut spending by using teleconferences, rather than by bringing people from far-flung corners of the state to central meeting sites.

A bill approved by the Wyoming legislature and currently awaiting Gov. Ed Herschler's signature would dramatically equalize school funding and provide additional support for schools. The bill essentially states that if a school district falls below a certain school-funding average, it will receive additional money from the state; and if the district falls above the state average, its extra funds will be subject to recapture and redistribution by the state.

Last November, voters paved the way for the change by approving a constitutional amendment that would allow for the redistribution of funds. The current school-finance system was declared unconstitutional.

About nine districts out of 49 might forfeit funds; the majority of districts would receive additional funds, according to Dennis J. Kane, director of communications for the state department of public instruction. The bill would increase the amount of state aid per "classroom unit" from $43,550 to $73,000 and increase the amount of money the state distributes from $114 million to $181 million per year.

A bill that would provide more state control over private schools, by requiring the schools to register with local districts and provide information about students, died in committee.

A so-called "equal education act" that would have added a brief statement in education statutes guaranteeing "equality of education for all" died in the legislature because lawmakers and educators believed such a guarantee was already in place.

The legislature has passed a bill to provide scholarships to assist teachers who wish to be retrained in critical areas such as mathematics, science, foreign languages, and telecommunications. But the legislature allocated only a nominal $2,500 in total support for the scholarships. The funds will help a few teachers obtain additional training.

In Washington, the legislature has passed and Gov. John Spellman has signed a tax-increase measure that will allow all state programs to continue operating through June 30. Education programs have already been cut by about 4.7 percent this year.

The measure includes a permanent increase in the state sales tax from 5.4 percent to 6.5 percent as well as a permanent excise tax on boats and temporary taxes on businesses' gross receipts that will expire June 30. These increases, which have been signed into law by the Governor, are expected to yield $172 million by June 30, according to Don Burrows, director of revenue for the state.

With a $600-million deficit in its $3.3-billion biennial state budget, the Oregon legislature is considering several measures that would create a state sales tax to generate more revenue. The shortfall in the budget has so far led to 10-percent cuts in the education budget, with a 25-percent reduction in education-department staff. Overall, the state budget was cut by about 15 percent, according to Jan C. Ryan, assistant superintendent for government relations in the state education department.

One tax bill that has been proposed, which would have to be approved by the voters if enacted by the legislature, would create a 4-percent sales tax. The tax would generate an expected $640 million, all of which would go to public schools.

A bill that would abolish both the state board of education and the state board of higher education is now being considered by the House education committee. If enacted, the bill would create a "commissioner for community colleges." That official, as well as the chancellor of higher education, and the superintendent of public instruction, would report directly to the already existing education coordinating commission.

The legislature is also considering a bill to make the state superintendency an appointed position. This would be a constitutional amendment requiring voter approval. A similar effort failed in 1980.

Several bills that address the issue of secession from existing school districts have been introduced, and are being considered. The issue came up last year in the Portland school district, which is seeking to make the secession process more difficult. Ms. Ryan said that the procedures involved require clarification.

Montana faces no shortfall in its $700-million budget this year.

Gov. Ted Schwinden has proposed a no-growth education budget for the next two years. The state department of education is asking for a 9-percent increase for each year, and one legislator, a former school superintendent, proposed 12-percent increases for both fiscal 1984 and 1985.

Education programs were bolstered by an 18-percent increase from the legislature in 1982 and an additional 15-percent increase for 1983.

In the current session, some 30 bills have been introduced to reduce the state's severance tax on oil and gas. State officials estimate that a change in the tax could cut the state's education subsidy by $88 million. Some of the tax-cut bills have already been rejected by the legislature, according to Maynard A. Olson, deputy superintendent of public instruction.

One bill now being considered by the Senate would help equalize aid to school districts by requiring richer districts to put some funds from mill levies, which are currently optional, into the school-foundation program for reallocation. The bill would require all counties to levy 55 mills. Now, the wealthier districts may levy from 40 to 55 mills.

Another equalization measure under consideration would have the state provide funds to take some of the burden off parents in districts with poor tax bases.

The legislature is currently considering a bill that would allow the state to exert more control over Baptist and Christian fundamentalist private schools. The state senate has merged four bills into a compromise bill that would require all schools to be accredited by state board of education and provide equivalent facilities, length of school year, and programs. The bill, however, would allow fundamentalist schools to hire uncertified teachers.

Legislators passed a joint resolution to request the commission on higher education and state superintendent to provide courses in economics in the schools. They have rejected proposals to: allow home instruction for reasons other than physical disability; force some of Montana's 500 school districts to consolidate; and end teacher strikes through binding arbitration.

Vol. 02, Issue 24

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