New Guide Takes Microscope to School-Finance Data

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The American Education Finance Association and the Center for the Study of the States have issued a comprehensive guide to state school-finance systems.

The new two-volume analysis offers a wide range of detailed information on each state's funding mechanisms and explains the major shifts in finance priorities over the last five years.

Running the gamut "from the mundane to the esoteric,'' the guide will be valuable to education analysts and government officials interested in the intricacies of the largest single consumer of state budgets, say its authors.

"In every state there are groups of people hungering for this kind of information,'' said Steven D. Gold, the director of the Center for the Study of the States at the State University of New York in Albany and an author of the report. "There's a tremendous demand for detailed information about how school-finance systems work in other states.''

Mr. Gold noted, for example, that the report documents a striking unity among the eight states that have overhauled their school-funding formulas since the last such guide was published, covering 1986-87.

In Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, and South Dakota, state lawmakers moved toward a "foundation'' program that provides a minimum level of per-pupil funding, while turning away from strategies that concentrate on local tax levies.

Mr. Gold said the move, a response to growing pressure from lawsuits raising the issue of school-finance disparities, reflects a trend toward providing a basic pot of money for each student. Foundation programs are now in place in three-fourths of the states, according to the report.

Private School Aid Tracked

The report notes that three states--New Mexico, Vermont, and Wisconsin--have some form of limited voucher system, and 20 states provide aid to private schools.

Eleven states assist with private school textbook expenses, the report indicates, while nine help pay for student transportation, four pay for free meals, and two assist with health-care costs. Six states offer aid in three of the four categories: Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

In addition to tracking how dollars move from the state treasury to classrooms, the report also details teacher-retirement and pension funding across the nation.

The report found that such programs, which are in place in 31 states, are often quite costly. In Maryland, 19 percent of total aid is devoted to retirement funds. In Massachusetts, the programs account for 15 percent of overall aid, followed closely by Florida, Texas, and New Jersey, where 14 percent of school aid goes to retirement costs.

The book also details how Alaska, Minnesota, and Utah have revised their retirement contributions, a politically sensitive topic that Mr. Gold said is gaining interest from lawmakers.

In addition, detailed information about gifted-and-talented, bilingual, and other categorical programs is included, as are findings on spending for special education, compensatory education, and pre-kindergarten programs.

A Finance Cookbook

The report includes data on each Canadian province and state except West Virginia, where officials did not supply any information.

The report also offers updates on Colorado, New Jersey, and Oregon, where reforms have led to major changes. But it does not reflect changes enacted since 1991 in Iowa, Kansas, and Texas.

"These two volumes can be compared to a cookbook showing the ingredients each state uses to fund schools,'' Mr. Gold observed. "But unlike a cookbook, there is no presumption that the recipes produce meals that taste good or are good for you.''

"There is no substitute for chefs with good judgment,'' he added.

Copies of the report, Public School Finance Programs of the United States and Canada, 1990-91, are available for $40 each, plus $4 postage, from the Center for the Study of the States, Rockefeller Institute of Government, 411 State St., Albany, N.Y. 12203-1003; (518) 443-5285.

Vol. 12, Issue 14

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