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Although per-pupil spending and teacher salaries are both higher this school year than last year, the increases are the smallest in a decade, according to figures released last week by the National Education Association.

"Signs of fiscal belt tightening and the recession are clearly evident in the trend of school expenditures,'' the N.E.A.'s president, Keith B. Geiger, said in releasing the union's 50th annual compilation of education data.

Based on information supplied by state departments of education, "Estimates of School Statistics 1991-92'' includes figures on student enrollment, school employment, teacher salaries, spending on education, and other information about public schools.

According to the report, education expenditures increased 5.8 percent in 1991-92, but per-pupil spending rose just 4.5 percent, to $5,452, because of growing student enrollment.

Total public-school enrollment for 1991-92 reached 41.8 million, with elementary-school students accounting for the vast majority of the 638,000-student increase.

This year's average salary for the nation's 2.4 million public-school teachers is $34,413, the report found. That figure represents a 4.4 percent increase over last year's and is the smallest salary increase in 10 years. Average teacher salaries vary widely among the states, from a high of $47,300 in Connecticut to a low of $23,300 in South Dakota.

Noting that overall state spending on education dropped, Mr. Geiger called for increased federal spending.

"We can't sugarcoat the issue and say that school reform doesn't take money,'' he said. "It's time to start talking straight about what the level of federal investment should be.''

The federal government's share of school spending, the N.E.A. reports, stands at 6.2 percent.

A large majority of Americans wants to see arts courses included in the regular school curriculum, a national survey concludes.

The survey, conducted by Louis Harris & Associates for the American Council for the Arts, found that 91 percent of respondents said it was important for children to learn about the arts and to develop artistic skills in schools. Sixty-seven percent ranked the arts equal in importance to history or geography, 60 percent to math and science, and 53 percent to reading and writing.

A majority of those polled said they would be willing to see cuts in administrative costs, extracurricular activities, or sports to fund arts classes.

The firm polled a representative sample of 1,500 adults age 18 or older by telephone in February.

The American Federation of Teachers announced plans last week to lobby state legislatures to provide training and legal guidelines for school workers who must care for increasing numbers of students with serious medical needs.

The growing presence of such "medically fragile'' students has forced educators to take on new responsibilities. Teachers and paraprofessionals are administering medications to children, inserting feeding and catheter tubes, and changing diapers--often with no training, the union says.

"The Congress and the courts have mandated that the public schools care for medically fragile children, yet no one ever said how to do this,'' said Loretta Johnson, a union vice president. The group is distributing proposed guidelines on the subject to its affiliates and lawmakers in the states.

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