As Districts Bristle, Unfunded State Mandates Face New Scrutiny

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As a member of the Arizona House last year, Bev Hermon introduced a bill to prohibit the state from imposing mandates on schools unless it was willing to pay for them.

But Ms. Hermon yanked the measure after the Senate attached a provision "strongly suggesting'' that school districts teach firearms safety.

"That's why I killed the bill myself,'' Ms. Hermon, now a member of the Senate, said last week as she recalled the undoing of her attempt to free schools from onerous regulations.

Arizona is one of a tiny number of states trying to come to grips with one of the biggest gripes of school officials: the legions of mandates that educators say drain their budgets and hamper their ability to do their jobs.

Texas may be on the verge of taking the biggest step. Voters there will go to the polls later this week to decide if they want to amend the state constitution to prohibit unfunded mandates on school districts.

Just as state leaders bristle at orders from the federal government, officials responsible for the gamut of local-government activities take umbrage at state dictates.

At the local level, the catalyst for protest frequently is the education establishment, said Chris Pipho, the director of state relations for the Education Commission of the States.

But prohibitions against unfunded mandates "never quite get solid teeth in place,'' said Mr. Pipho.

While one legislature may approve a mandate accompanied by state funding, Mr. Pipho explained, its successors may drop the money but leave the mandate, causing the prohibition to "collapse of its own weight.''

Moreover, as Ms. Hermon's experience shows, educators and others may rail at mandates in general but quail at the prospect of killing specific requirements they see as important.

Linked to Finance

The close connection between the issue of mandates and the broader question of education funding is evident in Texas, where the unfunded-mandate ban will go before the voters as the result of a deal in the legislature on school finance.

The mandate ban will be on the ballot along with a far more controversial proposal aimed at resolving the state's long-running dispute over school-finance equity. (See story, page 1.)

Proposition 2, as the mandate question is formally known, would exempt districts after this year from complying with state mandates not fully funded by the legislature.

The amendment includes an escape clause that would enable the state to mandate measures if two-thirds of the members of each legislative chamber voted to do so.

The Texas Association of School Boards estimates that schools spent a minimum of $1.5 billion last year to comply with some of the most significant state and federal mandates.

Last summer, the group published a book outlining 97 pages of regulations mandated either by the legislature or the state board of education.

"Some are petty and don't amount to much financially,'' said Frank Battle, the legislative counsel for the T.A.S.B. "There are some that are quite substantial.''

One legislative mandate with minimal administrative and financial impact, for example, requires districts to print their names on the sides of vehicles and adhere to the specific color, legibility, and height of the lettering.

But the state's requirement for a daily, 45-minute planning period for teachers, the T.A.S.B. estimates, cost districts $696 million last year.

Another costly mandate requires districts to identify and provide programs for all gifted and talented students but provides state reimbursement for such students only up to 5 percent of average daily attendance.

The book also indicates how some costs have shifted in recent years. In 1984, for instance, the state withdrew reimbursement for its mandate to provide employees at least five days of sick leave a year.

Opponents of Proposition 2 warn that unenlightened districts will use the prohibition against state mandates to justify the status quo.

"We refer to it as a chocolate-covered lemon,'' said Olivia Besteiro, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association.

"Most people think what it says is the state cannot pass unfunded mandates. What it actually [does] is exempt a school district from carrying out a state mandate if it is not fully funded. It lets them off the hook,'' contended Ms. Besteiro, whose organization was planning a $250,000 media campaign against Proposition 2.

Had such a prohibition been in place in recent years, she said, districts could have opted out of a 22-student limit in early-elementary classrooms and "no-pass, no-play'' athletic rules.

'Like Barnacles on a Ship'

Pennsylvania lawmakers are also exploring a constitutional amendment to prohibit demands on local jurisdictions, including districts, unless state funding is part of the deal.

Federal and state mandates "are adding a tremendous burden to our state budget,'' said Paul Dlugolecki, the executive director of the Senate appropriations committee, whose chairman has sponsored the proposed amendment. "We just can't afford to do it anymore.''

A recent study by the Pennsylvania Local Government Commission found roughly 8,000 mandates placed on local jurisdictions, according to Michael P. Gasbarre, the commission's assistant director.

A computer printout of capsule descriptions of mandates affecting districts runs 65 pages.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has compiled what it calls a "Dirty Dozen'' of mandates that are unnecessarily costly to taxpayers.

One of them requires districts to pay a "prevailing'' wage to workers on construction projects even if local average pay levels in private industry are lower, according to Thomas J. Gentzel, the assistant executive director for governmental relations.

Another rule on the P.S.B.A. list prohibits the furlough of professional-staff members for economic reasons.

"Mandates are a little like barnacles on a ship,'' said Mr. Gentzel. "They get attached a little at a time.''

While a few are not a problem, he added, "it's the cumulative effect that is so stifling.''

Members of the education community are quick to point out that legislatures are not the sole authors of unfunded regulations.

Little Support for Change

A few years ago, the Arizona state board of education issued a foreign-language mandate for elementary schools. The board expected the legislature to pay for the program, but it fell to districts to bear the costs, said Barbara Robey, the director of governmental relations for the Arizona School Boards Association.

"We just continue robbing Peter to pay Paul to come up with the monies,'' she said.

But when lawmakers attempt to answer the cries of school officials to get off their backs, they often find minimal support from those who are complaining.

Based on her experience last year, Senator Hermon, the chairwoman of the Senate education committee, and her counterpart in the House, Rep. Lisa Graham, tried a different tack this year.

The two committees jointly examined dozens of mandates. They sought to weed out some--planting a tree on Arbor Day, for example, and teaching about the free-enterprise system--while safeguarding others, such as AIDS education.

But their work, which would have accompanied a major reform package, went nowhere.

"We assumed there was overwhelming support for repealing mandates,'' said Ms. Hermon. "What we found was that there was little constituency for the changes.''

"As long as there are legislators with constituencies, those bills will continue to be introduced,'' she said.

The education community itself, moreover, also challenged the effort.

"The theory was to remove obstacles to local decisionmaking,'' said Rob Melnick, the director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University's school of public affairs.

"The practice,'' he said, "was that many times local schools and school leaders say one thing under one set of circumstances and say another thing when they are faced with the reality of what change means.''

Vol. 12, Issue 31

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