Capitol Recap

August 08, 2001 18 min read
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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.

Alaska | Connecticut | Delaware| Louisiana | New Hampshire |
Rhode Island


State Delays Exit Exam;
Agrees To Build Schools

Alaska lawmakers this year wrestled with two major education issues: the likelihood that a majority of the state’s high school students might not pass a new graduation exam, and the reality that many of its remote schools for Native Alaskan children are in pressing need of repair or replacement.

Gov. Tony Knowles

6 Democrats
14 Republicans
13 Democrats
27 Republicans

Although they are on opposite sides of the political aisle, Gov. Tony Knowles and legislative leaders alike claimed victory when they passed bills to address those two problems.

On the exit exam, the Democratic governor successfully pushed for a delay in requiring students to pass an exit exam before they could graduate from high school. State leaders were alarmed when two-thirds of the state’s 10th graders didn’t pass the test on the first try last year.

The new provision moves the starting date when students will be required to pass the exam from next year to 2004. (“Delay High-Stakes Graduation Exam, Alaska Board Says,” Jan. 10, 2001.)

Some school districts had pushed the state for more time to adjust their curricula to state academic standards, and to look for more resources to help struggling students. Advocates for students with disabilities also called for the delay.

“Frankly, I believe we need even more time to do this job right,” Mr. Knowles said upon signing the measure that allowed the delay. “But this bill is a victory for more fairness.”

A commission appointed by Mr. Knowles recommended $42.4 million this year in increased state spending to help more students meet Alaska’s accountability requirements. In the end, legislators approved a $28 million increase in general education spending, despite Mr. Knowles’ push for more. The state’s overall K-12 education budget rises to $722.6 million for the 2001-02 fiscal year.

To address school facilities needs, Gov. Knowles signed a $76 million bill providing money to build three new rural schools, to plan the construction of another, and to renovate 28 other schools. The construction spending comes after two court rulings ordered legislators to address deficient school buildings in rural villages.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that helps some urban schools: The governor signed a provision to correct an error in last year’s facilities legislation, assuring the 50,000-student Anchorage district that the state would reimburse the city for 70 percent of the value of a bond issue for school construction that was approved by voters last year.

Another $29 million in reimbursements was earmarked for several other new schools in more populated areas, plus repairs for schools in the state capital of Juneau and in the Aleutian Islands.

—Alan Richard


Districts Directed To Craft
Local Graduation Criteria

Connecticut lawmakers have handed a graduation assignment to the state’s 166 school districts.

A measure passed in the state’s marathon 2001 legislative session gives school systems one year to spell out the skills that students must demonstrate to graduate from high school. The bill emerged as a compromise amid debate over whether to adopt an exit-exam system in which students’ scores on statewide assessments would determine who earned a high school diploma and who didn’t.

21 Democrats
15 Republicans
100 Democrats
51 Republicans

Although some legislators still favor such high-stakes testing, the new measure is seen by many as a way to heighten school accountability without stepping on local control. School systems will be able to set their own graduation requirements, as long as they include student results on Connecticut’s 10th grade assessment as part of the picture. Districts have until September 2002 to set criteria, which must take effect with the graduating class of 2006.

“This is a logical extension of our existing testing program,” said House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward, a Republican who was a lead sponsor of the original exit-exam proposal.

Not wanting to upset Connecticut’s strong record of student performance, some state leaders were loath to go further in adding to the pressure that surrounds state tests. Most nationwide comparisons show Connecticut’s students overall to be among the highest-performing, though a wide gap remains between poor students and their more advantaged peers. (“High-Scoring Connecticut Says Scores Aren’t Everything,” Oct. 4, 2000. )

Wrangling over the budget this year sent Connecticut lawmakers into a special session that closed just hours before the new fiscal year began July 1. Striking a deal was complicated by a slowing economy and by legislated caps that limit increases in overall state spending and in state aid to local school districts.

“With the booming economy, we’ve been able to paper over our conflicts, and this obviously had to come to an end,” said Rep. Cameron C. Staples, a Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s joint education committee. “This is the first year in a while that people had to face up to limited choices.”

In the end, the legislature approved a biennial budget that allocates $1.94 billion for pre-K-12 education for fiscal 2001-02 and $2.02 billion for fiscal 2002-03. (The figure for fiscal 2000-01 is estimated at $1.84 billion.)

The increases include some relief for districts affected by the cap on state school aid, but lawmakers did not heed a call by many education leaders to eliminate the cap before 2003, when it is slated to be phased out. The budget also gives districts more help in paying for high-cost services for special education students, but there too, the increase was far less than many local leaders had hoped for.

Among the casualties of the last- minute budget battle was a package of proposals aimed at easing the teacher- recruitment pinch in some districts. Among other provisions, the measures would have offered student-loan forgiveness to new teachers while expanding a teacher-licensure program aimed at attracting nontraditional candidates. Another provision would have restored funding for a mentor program for new teachers, an effort meant to keep novices from leaving the field prematurely.

“That’s a really unfortunate setback,” Mr. Staples said of the package’s demise.

The legislature did not vote on a proposal put forth by Gov. John R. Rowland to create a $10 million demonstration program that would have offered students in low-income communities vouchers for tuition at religious or other private schools.

—Jeff Archer


Session Yields Modest
Changes in Schools Policy

A year after enacting a far-reaching accountability plan, the Delaware legislature passed smaller-bore measures this year on teaching and reading.

“This year we focused on housekeeping,” said Rep. Stephanie A. Ulbrich, a Republican who sits on the House education committee.

Sen. David P. Sokola, a Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, said “it’s obvious we didn’t do as much as last year.” But, he added, “sometimes not doing something is the best thing.”

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner

13 Democrats
8 Republicans
15 Democrats
26 Republicans

Mr. Sokola said he was pleased that lawmakers essentially kept their hands off the much-touted Professional Development and Educator Accountability Act passed last year. Under the law, 20 percent of an educator’s job evaluation will be tied to student achievement, gauged mostly by results on state tests and student attendance, starting in fall 2003. And next summer, 3rd, 5th, and 8th graders who haven’t met state standards must either attend summer school or be held back a grade.

But this year’s softening economy helped derail any similarly ambitious legislation, Republicans and Democrats said. On the one hand, the legislators’ budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 increases total education spending at nearly the same rate as the one they passed last year; state education spending is slated to rise by nearly 8.3 percent, to $773 million from $714 million.

Yet discretionary education funding, the amount lawmakers can spend on new programs, did not rise as fast as it did last year, state officials say. Because of rising transportation and special education costs, $6 million to $10 million less was available for that type of funding, said Mark A. Dufendach, the state’s associate secretary of education for finance and administrative services.

As a result, even first-year Gov. Ruth Ann Minner felt the budget pinch. In her Jan. 25 State of the State Address, Gov. Minner said her “number-one budget priority” was a $5 million proposal to hire a reading coach in every elementary school. Instead, the legislature appropriated half that amount. Reading specialists will now be hired at elementary schools ranked in the bottom half on student-achievement scores.

“She’s disappointed,” said Greg Patterson, a spokesman for the governor.

Others saw their hopes dashed completely. Last year, the Neighborhood Schools Act promised $350,000 to each district that reshaped its schools into grade clusters of 1-6, middle school, and high school; the legislation applied to 15 of the state’s 19 districts, excluding the four districts that were covered by a Wilmington-area desegregation case. But the legislature this year allotted no money to pay for the program.

“They moved in that direction, they were promised that money, and then it was gone, denied,” said Susan F. Shupard, the executive director of the Delaware School Boards Association.

Of those proposals that became law, several dealt with teacher retention. The issue is considered crucial in a state where an estimated 35 percent of public school teachers are eligible to retire within five years.

Among the measures was legislation designed to prevent teachers from discipline-related lawsuits. The law, which does not apply to other certified personnel, forbids lawsuits based on any disciplinary actions by the teacher that don’t result in a criminal conviction. Mr. Sokola, the law’s author, said that while the First State’s teachers haven’t been subject to many such claims, teachers had voiced concerns about the issue.

—Mark Stricherz


Gambling Money Tapped
To Shore Up Teacher Pay

From raising teacher pay to creating a preschool program for poor children, Louisiana’s legislature handled a full plate of education issues this year.

Teacher pay was one of the biggest—certainly the most expensive—items addressed. In a special session convened in March before the regular session began, lawmakers agreed on a plan to give teachers a $2,060 salary increase for the fiscal year that started July 1. Half of that is slated to come from gambling taxes; the other half is to be derived from increases in the state’s minimum-foundation program, the main source for K-12 funding.

Despite the raises, however, Louisiana’s teachers still lag behind the Southern regional average. The pay package came after Louisiana teachers’ unions staged a public-awareness campaign designed to exert pressure on the legislature to make teacher paychecks more generous. (“Louisiana Teachers Pressure State for a Raise,” Dec. 6, 2000.)

The new prekindergarten initiative was warmly received by education groups.

“That was one the most important bills that came out of the session,” said W.F. “Freddie” Whitford, the executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

With a budget of about $15 million next year, most of that from federal coffers, the preschool program will provide up to $5,000 per pupil for 4-year-olds. But Mr. Whitford cautioned that at that funding level, the program would serve only about 3,000 children, far fewer than are in need.

The state also created a new prekindergarten program for nonpublic schools in New Orleans, using $3 million in federal aid. That initiative has been strongly criticized by many public school advocates.

Gov. Mike Foster

25 Democrats
14 Republicans
71 Democrats
33 Republicans

Overall, state aid for K-12 education will rise this year to $2.61 billion, an increase of 7.9 percent over the $2.42 billion budget for fiscal 2000-01.

Some of the funding increase will go toward the state accountability system. For instance, $10 million will pay for a new rewards program for improving schools.

And money for remedial education will climb from $11.6 million to $20.3 million. Much of that will go toward helping schools provide summer school for students who fail the state’s high-stakes tests for 4th and 8th graders.

Another bill approved will provide incentives for retired educators to return to their former profession. Fred F. Skelton, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said that before now there were a handful of laws governing circumstances under which teachers could return to teaching without losing part of their retirement benefits, and that the new law is much simpler.

But Mr. Skelton suggested that the change would likely do little to ease the shortage of qualified teachers in the state, except perhaps in rural areas. “What solves the problem is having a competitive” pay system, he argued.

Brigitte Nieland, the education director for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said that in her eyes, “the number-one issue” was “that the legislature successfully defended against several attacks on the accountability program.” Ideas to undo the high- stakes-testing program, for example, never got out of committee.

Lawmakers also took some modest steps to increase the number of students who can qualify for free college tuition under the state’s Tuition Opportunity Program for Students, dubbed TOPS. For one, the minimum required score on the ACT college- entrance exam has been lowered.

Finally, lawmakers approved legislation that would increase from 175 to 177 the minimum number of instructional days for schools.

—Erik W. Robelen


Funding Law Passes, But
Accountability Bill Vetoed

The question of how to pay for public schools dominated this year’s legislative session in New Hampshire. But that didn’t stop Granite State lawmakers from haggling over two other education issues that regularly crop up in the legislature: school accountability and teacher-tenure reform.

A bill aiming to make schools more accountable for student achievement made it all the way to Gov. Jeanne Shaheen’s desk this year for the first time in the four years the issue has come up in the legislature. The governor vetoed it last month, however, claiming it didn’t go far enough.

A longtime proponent of added accountability, Gov. Shaheen favored requiring schools to set their own learning goals—and adhere to them—or face possible state intervention. The version of the bill that passed the Republican- controlled House and Senate, in comparison, would have merely encouraged districts to devise their own school improvement plans. It also set aside $2.5 million to help schools improve achievement, which was half of what Ms. Shaheen originally requested.

11 Democrats
13 Republicans
139 Democrats
258 Republicans

“I cannot support legislation which is more symbolic than substantive on an issue as critically important as school accountability,” she said in her veto message.

Republican leaders had argued that mandates were unnecessary because state education officials had offered no proof that New Hampshire has any failing schools or that the state would know how to fix them any better than local leaders did.

The bill got as far as it did this year because lawmakers had linked it with ongoing efforts to remake the teacher- tenure system. They added a provision, opposed by the governor and the state teachers’ union, that would have made it easier for local school boards to fire poorly performing teachers.

Ms. Shaheen and lawmakers did agree, though, to extend a state program providing incentives for districts to offer kindergarten programs. New Hampshire is the only state that does not require universal access to kindergarten, and 20 districts still do not have such programs. With the $6 million set aside to continue the program over the biennium, those districts can use state money to pay three-quarters of the cost of building or renovating classrooms for kindergartners.

The legislature also agreed to finance the governor’s request to expand health insurance for all eligible low- income children through a public-private matching-grant program.

Both issues took a back seat to the quandary over school funding. Lawmakers rejected Gov. Shaheen’s proposal to pay for schools with a new sales tax, as well as other bills aiming to finance education through other kinds of broad-based taxes. In the end, the legislature agreed to make the state’s property tax permanent and to plug any remaining gaps in the school budget with business and telephone taxes. (“N.H. Lawmakers OK Finance Plan, But Debate Lives On,” July 11, 2001.)

The state has been embroiled in a debate over how to pay for schools since the early 1990s, when five property-poor towns went to court charging that the state’s education system relied unfairly on local property taxes to pay for schools. And lawmakers said their action this session closed a chapter—but not the book—in that long- running debate.

The legislature also supported the governor’s request for money to support the Granite State Scholars, a public-private program that provides scholarships to high school seniors.

In all, legislators approved spending $956 million for K-12 schools and education department operations this fiscal year, and $974 million next year. This year’s funding level is 8.1 percent higher than the the nearly $884 million the state spent on precollegiate education in the last fiscal year.

—Debra Viadero


Legislature Opts Against
Major Funding Overhaul

Rhode Island’s 2001 legislative session began with calls for a new formula for doling out state aid to districts, but in the end, legislators opted only to tinker with the existing funding system.

For fiscal 2001-02, lawmakers approved an education budget of $676 million, a 7.1 percent hike over this past fiscal year. And while the bulk of the increase will go to urban school systems, each district also is guaranteed at least 3.5 percent more in state aid than it got the previous year.

Gov. Lincoln C. Almond

44 Democrats
6 Republicans
85 Democrats
15 Republicans

Despite minor changes, the budget adheres to the previous finance formula, which uses a series of funds for specific purposes, such as professional development and technology.

Some education leaders had hoped the legislature would scrap the formula in favor of one recommended last year by a task force appointed by Gov. Lincoln C. Almond. That plan would have guaranteed each district what it got the previous year, and then distribute any increases based on each district’s total enrollment, the number of its students who live in poverty, and the effort made by its community to raise money through local taxes.

The idea, proponents of the task force plan said, was to tie the funding mechanism more to the changing conditions in local districts, and to make it easier for school systems to predict how much money they would get from the state each year.

“We were disappointed that the governor’s proposal didn’t get more serious consideration,” said Gary S. Sasse, the executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a public- policy group that supports school improvement.

The question of how best to divvy up state aid among Rhode Island’s 36 school systems has become a source of contention. The challenge has been to meet the growing needs of city districts, while at the same time ensuring that rural and suburban communities don’t shoulder too much of the burden of financing their schools through local taxes.

But while school officials from around Rhode Island clamored for more state aid overall, there was no groundswell of grassroots support for a new formula this year, said Rep. Paul W. Crowley, a Democrat who chairs the House education committee.

“What we heard from districts is, ‘Get us as much money as you can, and we like the categorical way of investing it,’” he said.

But others argue that the need for a new formula will become clearer if Rhode Island’s economy takes a slide. Projections released last spring showed slowing growth in state revenues.

“When the money from the state levels off, then some communities will just be able to pay the bill locally, and some won’t,” said Commissioner of Education Peter J. McWalters. “And then you’re back to the old inequities.”

Lawmakers did, however, lay down new rules for financing the education of students, such as homeless children, who have been placed in group homes.

Previously, such cases often resulted in legal wrangling over funding among districts. Now, the legislature has set aside $7 million to guarantee state funding to each district based on the number of beds in the group homes in their communities.

Among the bills that failed to garner enough support to pass this year were two measures that would have extended the school day and a proposal that was aimed at replacing bilingual education with English-only instruction.

Lawmakers also did not act on a plan to eliminate a state provision allowing teachers to keep their licenses even if they have not achieved a passing score on the state’s teacher-licensing test.

—Jeff Archer

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Capitol Recap


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