State Journal: Children of the state; Out of work

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Looking back over two decades, a senior school-finance researcher recently acknowledged that he and his colleagues had failed to anticipate the extent to which the fundamental responsibility for funding education would shift from the local level to the states.

At a workshop at the annual meeting of the American Education Finance Association this month, Kern Alexander of Virginia Polytechnic and State University reflected on his role in the National Education Finance Projects, one of two federal panels that issued influential reports on school funding in the early 1970's.

"We missed a lot of things,'' Mr. Alexander recalled. "We didn't know they were state funding systems, not local systems.''

"We didn't look at students as children of the state, rather than of the locality,'' he added.

Another unforeseen development was the emergence of equity lawsuits as a major factor in school finance, Mr. Alexander said.

"We didn't realize that the legislatures' plenary powers would be called into question by the courts and the language of the state constitutions,'' he said. "We didn't know we would have 25 active finance cases today.''

Mr. Alexander noted later, however, that his panel's work had had an important impact on many states' school-finance systems, leading for example to a greater emphasis on the early grades in funding formulas.

Moreover, he added, "We saw that the public had to be convinced of the need for investment in education.''

Participants in the workshop at the Albuquerque, N.M., meeting also speculated on the kinds of changes likely to occur in school finance over the next two decades.

For Mr. Alexander, a key task will be to understand the full implications of court decisions mandating greater equity in state school-funding systems.

"We haven't fully accepted the idea that we aren't operating with a small amount for some children and a large amount for others,'' he said.

Another veteran of the earlier panels, Richard Rossmiller of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, suggested that the trend of recent years would continue to its logical conclusion.

"Pressures will move us to full state funding and a full system of choice,'' Mr. Rossmiller predicted. "I see local control as becoming more and more mythological.''

Mr. Rossmiller also noted an ominous implication of that trend for members of the A.E.F.A., who spend much of their time studying and debating how money is divided up at the state and school district levels.

"In 20 years, we won't have a job,'' he warned.--H.D.

Vol. 12, Issue 27

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