Big-Ticket Items Predicted To Vie for State Dollars

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School construction and technology will share the stage with the perennial budget battles as lawmakers in several states roll up their sleeves this month to begin 1997 legislative sessions.

Welfare reform will also be a contender. And backed by the ringing endorsement of President Clinton, charter schools could elbow other reform measures out of the limelight.

"You're not going to see much more in private management and vouchers," predicted Patricia Sullivan, the education director for the National Governors' Association. "I get lots of calls about what makes a good charter school law."

Most legislatures are looking at sound fiscal projections and are out from under election-year pressures. Twenty-nine states tell the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures that their revenue will exceed expectations this fiscal year.

Nearly all states predict that spending on major categories like education and corrections will be on target.

But instead of higher spending, the rosy outlook may spur interest in lower taxes.

"We can expect to see the finance issue taken on early," said Laura Tomaka, a policy analyst with the Council of State Governments' Midwestern office. "Property-tax containment will be at issue."

And there is no guaranteed windfall for K-12 spending, as backers of all sorts of issues and causes clamor for more money.

"Education funding should be easy," said Chris Pipho, a spokesman for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "But it gets more politically volatile because everyone wants to get into the act."

Competing Priorities

School programs will likely be forced to fight for more money because big-ticket items like school construction, technology, and lower class sizes are on the table.

In California, where Democrats recaptured the legislature last fall, Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin wants $800 million to fully fund the state's K-3 class-size-reduction program.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, meanwhile, is proposing $488 million for the second year of the program, but wants to spend $500 million over four years on a new technology plan.

In Texas, 65 school districts have formed a coalition that will seek special funding for fast-growing school systems at the same time that Republican Gov. George W. Bush is promising to cut property taxes.

"We're not a lobbying group per se, but a group that will educate legislators," said Bill Carpenter, an assistant superintendent for the Cypress-Fairbanks district near Houston and a leader of the coalition.

The 53,000-student system has grown by 20,000 children in the past 10 years. But 16 new buildings have left $689 million in bond debt.

School construction will also be a priority in Florida, according to Rep. William F. Andrews, the incoming GOP chairman of the education committee. He wants Congress to help pay for schools needed to meet exploding enrollments.

"It's too early to talk about, but I intend to bring people together to see how we can approach Congress," he said.

Partisan Shifts

Legislators enter the fray following November elections that gave Democrats control of both legislative bodies in 20 states, a gain of four. Republicans hold both chambers in 18 states, the same as last year.

But the number of states where legislatures are split or where governors and legislative leaders come from opposing parties is unusually high this year.

Despite promises of bipartisanship, those splits, along with the power shifts, will have an impact on legislation, some lawmakers say.

For example, a spirited debate on state school aid is expected in Illinois, where Democrats won the House and now share control with a GOP-majority Senate and Republican Gov. Jim Edgar.

"The reason that the formula has not equalized funding is because not enough money has been put into it," said Rep. Mike Boland, a Democratic member of the education committee. "That should come to an end."

Eyes on Washington

The new federal welfare law also looms like a thundercloud.

Critics of the law that President Clinton signed last year say that schools will see more hungry children because of the end of the federal public-assistance guarantee.

"Few state education agencies understand that there are profound implications of the new law for day-to-day operations of public schools," said Martin Gerry, the director of the Center for the Study of Family, Neighborhood, and Community Policy at the University of Kansas.

Others hope that federal appropriators will smile on schools.

"Federal education spending increased 15 percent for 1997," said Laurie Westley, the assistant executive director of the National School Boards Association. "It was a big deal, but it needs to be a commitment, not a one-year spike."

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