Educational Improvement Is a Priority In Budget-Conscious State Legislatures

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"You don't make changes unless you've got an extra pot of gold," said Helen E. Caffrey, executive director of Pennsylvania's Senate Education Committee. "All of our energy is focused on budget matters. There's not much time for anything else."

In large measure, Ms. Caffrey may be correct: Legislators in most of the states are preoccupied during this session with current-year budgets that have slid into the red and with poor financial prospects for the next biennium.

But an Education Week survey of legislative action in the 50 states suggests that much of the energy not devoted to resolving financial problems is being directed toward improving instruction in science and mathematics. Citing a link between science education and the high-technology-based economic development states hunger for, governors, education leaders, and prominent legislators in well over half the states have initiated legislation involving those disciplines.

So popular is the theme, one Midwestern education official noted, that even though his state has surpluses of teachers in mathematics and most science disciplines, he expects legislation to promote teacher training in those fields anyway. "It's just the times," he said. "The perception of a crisis is so strong that they can't not do anything."

By far the most common proposal is for "forgivable loans" to college students who pledge to teach mathematics or science in public schools for a specified period after graduation. Nearly half the states are considering such plans. Some education officials believe such programs are particularly attractive to legislators because the cost is spread over several years and because federal student assistance is increasingly scarce.

Other popular approaches include grants for the re-training of currently certified teachers who wish to go into mathematics or science; summer enrichment programs or residential schools for talented pupils; and statewide or regional consortia for information-sharing.

Although educators and legislative aides in several states said they believe that schools are regaining a high place on the public-policy agenda--most governors, for example, called education a top "priority'' in their state-of-the-state and budget addresses--other specific instructional initiatives are relatively few in the capitols this year.

Two governors, Richard Snelling of Vermont and Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, are pressing for early-childhood education. About a half-dozen legislatures have taken the question of stiffened high-school graduation requirements into their own hands, although several states' boards are working on new requirements.

There is no clear trend this session on the regulatory relationship between state agencies and school districts; Illinois is considering what local officials call a "de-mandating" of some programs, while Florida may impose statewide graduation standards for the first time in several years.

At least four states are considering differential pay for "master teachers" or teachers in mathematics, science, and other disciplines in which there are shortages. The most ambitious of these plans is being promoted by Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. (See Education Week, Feb. 9, 1983.) Gov. James R. Thompson of Illinois has proposed a much more modest version of the master-teacher plan.

Some 30 states are confronted with or have resolved shortfalls in the current fiscal year; estimates of the aggregate deficit run as high as $8 billion.

Most governors, notably those in the South, have the authority to make compensating midyear cuts without specific legislative approval. But in a number of capitols where legislators have been drawn into the act, such as Lansing, Mich., the opposing political parties are still haggling over revenue projections; they have not agreed on the amount of the shortfall, much less on a solution.

Optimistic Projections

A few states, including Georgia, have seen modest upturns in recent revenue collections and are optimistic about fiscal 1984. For the most part, however, the governors and lawmakers appear to be basing their budgets on the assumption that recovery will be slow.

Thirty-two states have enacted or are considering tax increases this session. Many are relatively modest hikes in levies on such items as gasoline, minerals, and alcoholic beverages. Some of the larger and more depressed states, including Washington, Ohio, and California, have been forced to consider or to adopt substantial increases in broad-based taxes.

And even those drastic measures may not provide enough help. In Illinois, for example, where Governor Thompson has proposed $1.8 billion in increased taxes, more than half of the new revenue would be needed to balance the current fiscal year's budget.

Still, relatively few legislatures are giving serious consideration to measures that would significantly enhance school districts' ability to raise revenue locally. A few are considering accelerated tax collections
and other gimmicks that would yield one-time local revenue gains. A more common cost-cutting initiative, proposed in eight states, would permit districts to switch to a four-day school week.

District consolidation, another tempting money-saver, is under consideration in nine states, but is a volatile issue. In Arkansas and Minnesota, the mere suggestion that the state study consolidation has met strong opposition; the Arkansas bill died in committee.

The issue tends to create "more furor and havoc than it's worth," noted Gail L. Sims, the Nebraska department of education's legislative liaison. The administration in Wisconsin, however, is considered likely to succeed with its plan to consolidate its intermediate educational-service districts.

Minor Changes Common

Minor changes in state-aid formulas are commonly proposed; most proposals for major overhauls have occurred in states such as Wyoming, Maryland, and Arkansas, where court cases are pending or have concluded in rulings requiring equalization.

Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, despite a state high-court ruling that upheld the current finance system, is advocating greater equalization; his proposal is considered highly unlikely to pass. And in California, Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican legislator, and the state's school-boards association have proposed variations on the block-grant concept.

California and Minnesota are also considering variations on the vouch-er concept to enable lower-income children to attend private schools. (See related story on page 6.)

Competency testing for students and teachers appears to have less momentum in the legislatures than it did a few years ago--although several state boards of education are dealing with the issue. But state regulation of private schools remains an area of conflict.

Ten states are considering bills on the issue, most of them aimed at limiting state oversight of nonpublic schools.

Recent court decisions appear to have diminished state-level efforts to restore organized prayer in public schools. Only one state, Tennessee, reported passing legislation related to prayer. The bill, which was been approved by both houses and sent to the governor, calls for a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day but deletes the references to prayer and meditation that prompted a federal judge to invalidate a similar statute last year.

Remarked one state education official: "The only prayers I've heard around here this year have been in relation to the budget."

Vol. 02, Issue 24

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