The following offers education-related highlights of the recent legislative sessions. The enrollment figures are based on estimated fall 2001 data reported by the National Center for Education Statistics for prekindergarten through 12th grade in public elementary and secondary schools. The figures for precollegiate education spending include money for state education administration, but not federal, flow-through dollars, unless otherwise noted.
Midyear Budget Changes
Hit Local School Districts
In an attempt to shore up dwindling financial reserves, the Nebraska legislature made midyear budget adjustments that included cutting $22.2 million in school aid for fiscal 2002-03—down from the $640.4 million approved last year as part of the state's two-year budget. That averages out to about 3.2 percent less in state aid per school district.
But the legislators also gave schools a way to get some of that money back: Under new legislation, districts now can raise property taxes without getting approval from voters. As a result, a school board can exceed the levy cap of $1 per $100 of assessed value if a "super majority" of the board approves the move.
"There's a great hesitancy to do this," said John Sellentin, the executive director of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators. "But it may be the only option we have."
That's because in addition to the $22 million cut, the legislature had axed another $37 million in state lottery and grant money last fall. And the lawmakers may not be finished yet.
The legislature has approved $215.8 million in spending reductions since last fall, including an 8 percent cut to most state agencies, a 3.5 percent cut to the University of Nebraska and a 2 percent cut to state colleges. However, lawmakers may meet again this summer to figure out how to stop the continuing budget troubles.
State spending still outpaces revenues, and if current spending trends continue, the budget hole could equal $53 million if legislators wait until January to meet.
A new law, meanwhile, is making districts scramble. Starting this coming fall, school districts cannot impose fees for academic classes such as biology or math. Schools can, however, require students to pay for extracurricular activities, some transportation costs, and summer school, among other items. Students from low-income families are exempt from paying fees.
Districts have until Aug. 1 to craft new student- fees policies and must hold public hearings on their proposed changes.
Officials in the 5,100-student Westside school system are not happy about the new fees policy. "This will cost us $150,000 to over $200,000," said Kenneth M. Bird, the district's superintendent. "The reality is that this will take away from programs and other [academic-related] efforts."
Besides cuts to education and other departments, legislators in their spring session approved raising the state sales tax for one year, from 5 percent to 5.5 percent, starting Oct. 1, as well as increasing the individual income tax by an average of 2.2 percent beginning Jan. 1. Smokers will also pay more: The legislature raised cigarette taxes from 34 cents to 64 cents for two years, effective Oct. 1.
—Rhea R. Borja
Noncertified N.H. Teachers
Easier to Hire Under Law
New Hampshire school districts will have an easier time hiring noncertified teachers for hard-to-staff teaching jobs, under a new law enacted this year.
The measure, which was signed by Gov. Jeanne Shaheen last month, was the only major piece of education legislation to make it through a legislative session that was otherwise dominated by partisan disagreement.
The change in the state's teacher-hiring rules allows districts, rather than the state, to decide when a teacher shortage is severe enough to warrant the hiring of noncertified candidates.
Proponents of the law said having that kind of flexibility was critical because some districts, such as those in the rural areas and those bordering higher-paying Massachusetts districts, have a particularly hard time attracting qualified teachers.
In other action, Gov. Shaheen vetoed a bill that would have allowed the state to establish charter schools. Currently, New Hampshire has no charter schools, a situation that some legislators blame on the existing state law's requirement that local school districts, rather than the state, approve the largely independent public schools.
"It's not a local issue," Rep. Warren Henderson, the Republican who chairs the House education committee, said of charter schools. "Almost anywhere we can put a dot on a map and draw a 15- to 20-mile radius around it, we are bumping into four or five different districts."
But the governor argues that giving the state authority to approve charter schools would be "a subversion of local control."
Ms. Shaheen also vetoed a measure passed by both chambers of the legislature that would have linked any annual increases in the state's share of school spending to the consumer price index.
Both bills failed to win the two-thirds majorities needed to override the vetoes.
Lawmakers made no changes in the state's $974 million education budget for the coming fiscal year during the session, which came in the middle of a two-year budget cycle. Such matters are expected to come up in 2003, when the legislators reconvene.
One issue that is sure to be on the table then is accountability. The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in April that the state was not doing enough to hold schools accountable for the quality of education they provide. Legislators, in the end, made the decision to wait and study the issue another year.
Vol. 21, Issue 39, Page 16