The following offers education-related highlights of the recent legislative sessions. The enrollment figures are based on estimated fall 2000 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.
Shortfalls in School Taxes
Dominate Eduction Debate
If Alabama’s legislative debate over education were to be summed up in one word this year, it would be this: money.
A state revenue shortfall has forced some midyear belt-tightening among Alabama’s schools and universities, and legislators spent a lot of time trying to deal with the situation. “Money was far and away the issue,” said Susan Salter, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Association of School Boards.
Ultimately, the legislature approved a plan backed by Gov. Donald Siegelman that would allow the state to issue up to $110 million in bonds to soften the blow of those budget cuts.
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Lawmakers also approved an education budget for the 2001-02 fiscal year that is expected to provide $2.96 billion for schools. While most of that funding already has been earmarked, a small portion is tied to other bills the legislature did not yet complete and is expected to pass during a special session this summer.
Whether the new spending total for schools represents an increase depends on the basis of comparison. The original total for this school year was $3.03 billion. But the estimated $266 million funding cut—a result of smaller-than-anticipated revenues from income and sales taxes, which feed the trust fund—lowers that total to about $2.92 billion, thereby making the new budget an increase of 3.8 percent.
And if that’s not confusing enough, lawmakers included a proviso that if tax revenue continues to fall short, a panel composed of the state finance director and the chairmen of the House and Senate committees that oversee the education budget could enact a 1 percent cut to the fiscal 2002 education budget this August.
Gov. Seigelman’s approach to this year’s education cuts has weighed more heavily on universities and two-year colleges than on K-12 schools, largely because precollegiate salaries were excluded from the cuts. Higher education institutions have seen decreases of about 11 percent, while school district budgets have been trimmed by nearly 4 percent.
Disputes over the governor’s approach have prompted legal action pitting the K-12 and higher education sectors against each other. A case is now before the Alabama Supreme Court.
Under the new law, distribution of the state bond funds would vary, depending on which side loses in court. The measure is designed to make sure that both education sectors effectively lose 3.76 percent of their funding for the current fiscal year, the amount the public schools are currently losing under the governor’s plan.
Meanwhile, to help districts deal with budget cuts this year and possibly next, superintendents have been granted new flexibility in spending some of the state aid they receive—except funding earmarked for salaries and several other items.
Also, growing concern that some Alabama districts are not effectively managing their resources prompted the legislature to pass a law requiring that all new superintendents receive training in school finance and the law. For example, the Jefferson County district has been plagued by financial problems for a few years, with several former employees and vendors either charged with or convicted of illegal purchasing schemes following investigations by federal prosecutors.
Lawmakers also approved a measure that requires a 60-second period of quiet reflection before graduation ceremonies and school athletic events.
—ERIK W. ROBELEN
Teachers To Get Raises
Of $3,000 Over 3 Years
For years, Arkansas education activists have been pressing for better salaries for teachers, who have been tough to hold on to in a state where average salaries have hovered about $3,000 below the Southern regional average and $8,000 beneath than the national average. The message was simple: Without better pay, coveted educators would continue to leave, and attempts at reform would be hamstrung.
This year, the legislature responded by passing a bill that raises public school teachers’ salaries by $3,000 over the next two years. A legislative priority of Gov. Mike Huckabee, the pay increase is slated to be phased in, with $1,000 increases provided in the coming fiscal year and $2,000 more the following year.
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“We realize that in our reform efforts, the teacher is the central component of making this successful,” said Raymond Simon, the director the Arkansas Department of Education. “This [raise] is a good start.”
Linda Poindexter, the president of the Arkansas Education Association, expressed muted enthusiasm about the raises her organization has been lobbying for over the years. “We are still behind other states,” she said. “They are not standing still on salaries. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.”
Ms. Poindexter was pleased that lawmakers also passed legislation that will help teachers with moving expenses if they teach in districts located in the Mississippi Delta region. “We have a severe shortage in the Delta because it’s the poorest area in the state,” she said.
Overall, lawmakers approved a $1.79 billion budget for precollegiate education last month, up from $1.75 billion in the 2001-02 fiscal year.
Mr. Simon said education fared well in a budget process made tighter by tougher economic times. “Education had a very good session,” he said. “Education was given priority in the budgeting.”
But increased attention will be focused in the coming months, he said, on how the state responds to a decision in a state chancery court last month that declared the state’s formula for distributing money to schools inadequate. The judge in that case ruled the state had done little to fix the disparity in resources between the richest and poorest school districts since the state supreme court declared the system unconstitutional in 1983. The state will appeal the new decision.
The teacher raises were the centerpiece of education legislation during the session. In another significant move, the legislature adopted a new state tax on beer that will increase funding for a state preschool program by $5.3 million annually. More funds also went to a program that supports new teachers who work with an experienced mentor-teacher for two years, as a way to help attract and retain high-quality educators.
Districts Get Some Help
In Fixing Building Woes
Despite a court ruling directing the legislature to provide funding to correct school conditions posing threats to health and safety, legislators killed all but one bill this session designed to address the problem. Still, the measure that survived will provide Idaho school districts with their first help from the state in addressing their school facilities needs.
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Several districts had filed suit against the state in a bid for funds to help them rebuild schools severely needing structural repair. In response, a state trial judge ruled in February that the current system of funding school construction projects did not meet constitutional requirements providing that all students have access to a “safe environment conducive to learning.”
Legislators responded by drawing $10 million from an existing fund for emergency health and safety projects to help districts pay the interest on voter-approved bank loans used for school construction and repair. The state will pay between 10 percent and 100 percent of the interest applied to such loans. (“Side-by-Side States Are Far Apart In Funding for Facilities,” June 6, 2001.) Some districts dropped out of the facilities-funding suit after the measure passed.
The new program will “help school districts help themselves,” said Mark Snider, the press secretary to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, while keeping decisions about school construction under local control. If the state were to assume a greater role, he said, “the state would have jurisdiction over when the schools are built, how they’re designed, and over what time period.”
Mr. Snider added that while many districts have legitimate concerns, others simply need to devote more money to repairs.
But Rep. Wendy Jaquet, a Democrat, was among those who felt the legislation fell short. “It’s just not enough,” she said. Accusing some of her fellow legislators of “denial and arrogance,” she called concerns about local control “an excuse.”
“They’ve said the judge is wrong, her ruling will be appealed, and that this new bill for interest payments is the best thing since sliced bread,” she said. “But it isn’t.”
Hopes for broader action on school building issues suffered a setback when the House voted 51-17 against a measure that had cleared the Senate that would have authorized a committee to study the financing of school facilities. Some House members predicted the panel’s work would be a waste of time.
Meanwhile, teacher pay topped the list of education measures that lawmakers did approve. The bill raised the state’s minimum starting salary for teachers from $22,000 to $25,000.
Supporters of the bill rejoiced, saying that a promise of solid wages should bolster efforts to recruit and retain good teachers. Some opponents, however, complained that the legislation failed to provide funding for the minimum salaries, and would reduce money available for raises needed to retain experienced teachers.
The new minimum salary will cost districts an estimated $2 million and is expected to affect nearly 10 percent of starting teachers. The legislature also approved a 6.7 percent increase in the overall budget for precollegiate education. Lawmakers agreed to boost state aid for public schools from $812 million to $869.5 million, and to provide $63.5 million in local property-tax relief.
On the curriculum front, the legislature approved statewide academic standards for grades K-8 in language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and health, following last year’s adoption of such standards for grades 9-12. In addition, lawmakers granted a request by state Superintendent Marilyn Howard for $8 million in the coming fiscal year to help schools implement the state’s new academic standards. The money will be used primarily for training teachers and administrators.
Meanwhile, Gov. Kempthorne signed into law a measure that sets goals for student literacy that schools will be expected to meet, starting in 2004.
When the program is fully in place in 2006, schools will be expected to show that at least 60 percent of their kindergartners, 70 percent of their 1st graders, 80 percent of their 2nd graders, and 85 percent of their 3rd graders are reading at or above grade level, as measured by state assessments. Schools that fall short will be put on a statewide list publicized on the Internet, and face the possibility of state intervention.
Finance Changes Adopted,
But Testing Plan Falls Flat
While making some adjustments to the state’s formula for financing its public schools, Illinois legislators opted against changing the state’s much-debated testing system to conform more closely to the yearly assessment plan being advanced by President Bush.
In a step that lawmakers billed as an effort to help narrow the spending gaps between the state’s poor and wealthy districts, districts will be required to spend at least $4,560 per student in the coming school year, an increase of $135. Under the state’s funding formula, the amount of state aid supplied to meet that minimum varies according to district wealth, with poorer districts receiving more. Earlier this year, an 18-member advisory commission appointed by the governor recommended the $135-per-pupil figure.
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The legislature also altered a grant program that provides districts with supplemental per-pupil funding based on the percentage of poor students they serve. The previous policy excluded districts in which fewer than 20 percent of students came from low-income families.
Now, those districts will receive at least some extra money for each poor student they enroll. Under a sliding scale linked to student poverty, the per-pupil amount will vary, ranging from $300 in districts with low poverty rates to $1,500 in those with large concentrations of poor students.
Overall, Illinois will spend $6.22 billion on pre-K-12 education in the fiscal year that starts next month, a 5.1 percent jump. Of the $303 million in new spending, $230 million is aimed at equalizing funding between wealthy and low-income districts in a state that relies heavily on local property taxes to pay for schools.
In other finance matters, lawmakers also approved Gov. George H. Ryan’s plan to devote more than half the new state revenues toward education and job training. This year, $460 million will go toward those goals.
Although each of the spending increases was supported by the governor and an influential business group, the Illinois Business Roundtable, their proposal for annual student testing in grades 3-11 came up short.
Last October, the Illinois board of education approved the plan, some three months before President Bush unveiled a proposal to require states to test all students in grades 3-8 each year as a condition of receiving federal Title I aid. (“Illinois School Board OKs Plan For More State Testing,” Nov. 1, 2000.)
But legislative approval was required for the plan to take effect, and that legislation never made it out of committee. Sen. Dan Cronin, a Republican who chairs the Senate education committee and who pulled the proposal before it came up for a vote, now intends to hold hearings this month and next on how to revise it.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Richard Laine, the director of education for the Illinois Business Roundtable. He blamed the bill’s defeat on opposition by advocates of local control, particularly among Republicans.
In another proposal in his Jan. 31 State of the State Address, Mr. Ryan called for downsizing and eliminating “red tape” in the state education department.
Although the governor did not put forward legislation to carry out a sweeping reorganization of the agency, he urged the state board of education to come up with a plan for trimming about 160 of the agency’s roughly 800 positions, said Hazel Loucks, the deputy governor for education.
In the end, the department agreed to pare about 80 positions, without resorting to layoffs, over the course of the coming fiscal year, with most of those slots being lost to attrition. Others will come from the shifting of some department functions to two higher-education-related agencies.
Gail L. Purkey, the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, suggested that lobbying by the union helped scale back the governor’s original proposal. “We were able to convince him that he could take care of the problem by not filling positions that were open,” she said.
Nonetheless, Ms. Loucks said that Mr. Ryan is hoping for further cutbacks in the department.
“The governor is still expecting the state board of education to look critically at their mission and function,” she said, “and to reduce their numbers.”
Session Satisfies Educators,
But Disappoints Governor
In its 2001 legislative session, the Oklahoma legislature scuffled over the issues of graduation standards, school accountability, and funding. In the end, it settled on only modest changes to the current system, disappointing Gov. Frank Keating, who had called for an aggressive improvement agenda this year.
The priorities the governor laid down in his February annual address—such as increasing the rigor of the school curriculum and giving districts incentives to lower their overhead costs and to shift dollars from administrative functions to the classroom—held the potential to recapture the momentum of the landmark 1999 session. That year, the state raised high school graduation standards and introduced limited versions of school choice and charter schools. But some of Mr. Keating’s major ideas never got out of committee this year.
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Still, the series of education bills that the governor signed on June 5 were good enough for many members of the state education community.
“We were disappointed that there was not more funding, but we were very pleased that of the $64 million [in additional state money] we got [for public education], legislators stayed with priorities of the education coalition,” said Keith E. Ballard, the executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
The lobbying coalition, composed primarily of the state’s major education associations, including the school boards’ group and the two statewide teachers’ unions, wanted the same increase—$100 million—that Gov. Keating had proposed. But they opposed his idea of putting $80 million of it into block grants to schools, with the most money going to districts that reduced their administrative costs.
Instead, the Democratic-controlled legislature designated the new money for new textbooks, employees’ retirement contributions, and health benefits for certified and support-staff employees.
The increase means that total annual funding of public schools will top $2 billion for the first time in the state’s history. Including $21.7 million for the state education agency, the total for the 2001-02 fiscal year stands at $2.06 billion, an increase of about 3.3 percent over the current year.
Another bill signed by Gov. Keating, Senate Bill 168, expands the state’s testing program by requiring students in grades 1-3 to be assessed at the beginning of each school year for basic reading and language skills.
It also requires schools to provide instruction to assure that elementary students acquire phonics-based reading skills. The bill sets a statewide goal of having 90 percent of all 3rd graders reading at or above grade level by the spring of 2007, which will become the standard for evaluating a school’s reading program.
But legislators shelved, for now, the governor’s proposal to test students annually in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8, to see what comes of a similar proposal by President Bush for annual testing of students in those grades across the nation.
Mr. Keating found some support for his crusade against school district bureaucracies, which he views as money wasters. Another new law, House Bill 1601, authorizes the state’s office of accountability to conduct a performance review of the effectiveness and efficiency of the operations of school districts that have administrative costs above set expenditure limits.
Another new law, SB 595, permits schools to count in their average-daily-attendance numbers students who take Internet courses or participate in other instruction away from campus for part of each school day. The law will protect small rural schools, which are less likely to offer advanced or specialized courses, from losing state aid when their students take those courses through a nearby vocational-technical school or over the Internet.
Changes to ‘Sharing Pool’
Discussed, But Not Passed
Vermont legislators spent months debating changes to the state’s controversial school finance law but had nothing to show for their efforts when their legislative session ended in the wee hours of June 3.
With Republicans taking control of the House for the first time in more than a decade, representatives of wealthy communities were eager to try to make changes to Act 60, the 1997 law that abolished local property taxes and set up a statewide property tax that attempted to equalize funding. As a result of the law, some wealthy resort towns saw their taxes skyrocket but had much less to spend on their schools.
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At issue was whether the state could restructure the “sharing pool” set up under Act 60, which requires towns that have raised additional revenues for schools through local taxes or voluntary contributions to share a portion of those proceeds with poorer districts. The Senate passed a measure that would give well-off districts more time to phase in the sharing- pool portion of Act 60, but the House wanted more drastic changes. The House was unable to pass its version of the bill, and the legislation died.
However, most observers believe the issue will continue to dog legislators in upcoming sessions.
In the annual budget, the legislature did agree to increase the state’s per-pupil allotment under Act 60 by $65 a child, to $5,448, for a total of $594 million in the 2001-02 fiscal year. It also increased funding by $697,000 for an ongoing educator-quality program. Under the program’s expansion, the state will start providing incentives to teachers who wish to seek certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, by paying $2,000 of the board’s $2,300 testing fee.
If teachers succeed, they will receive annual $2,500 stipends for the 10-year duration of the certification in exchange for mentoring either new teachers or other teachers seeking national certification. Also, the teachers’ districts will receive $2,500 annual grants to support the work of the board-certified teachers.
The new funding is also designed to help recruit midcareer professionals and students into teaching.
Lawmakers debated a measure to allow charter schools in the predominantly rural state, which has recently begun an experiment with interdistrict public school choice. But the legislature chose to form a study group to examine the issue before moving forward.
The first half of the biennial legislative session ran nearly two months past its targeted adjournment, and was generally viewed as relatively unproductive. Gov. Howard Dean, a medical doctor, had placed little emphasis on education issues this year, instead focusing on health care in the state.
— Joetta L. Sack
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as Capitol Recap