More Money for Schools, Less Consensus on Allocations

Published in SEDL Letter Volume X, Number 2, December 1997, New Policies for Southwestern Schools

The issues highlighted during the 1997 regular legislative sessions in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas indicate state government echoed the public's concerns about the quality of K-12 education. With budget surpluses adding as much as $14.2 billion to 1997 state coffers across the nation, according to a September report in the Washington Post, states gained flexibility to invest more in public programs, including education. At the same time, some legislative actions sought to expand public choices in schooling.

Lawmakers in all five states increased public school budgets, with Arkansas standing out by devoting nearly half its annual budget to K-12 education.

Except for New Mexico every state in the region increased teacher salaries or placed teachers on salary schedules that reward years of experience. Other educator-focused laws require criminal-background checks for people seeking certification as Arkansas and New Mexico school personnel and enhance professional development opportunities for Texas teachers and Louisiana school administrators. It seems lawmakers recognized that a high-quality school work force is necessary for improving public education, and they crafted policies to achieve that end.

Policymakers also attended to some of the basics of public instruction. Reforms in Louisiana and New Mexico require school districts to improve school accountability systems. Large-scale reading initiatives were refined in Arkansas and initiated in Louisiana, Texas, and, to a lesser degree, Oklahoma, while other legislation also affected mathematics, character education, and core curriculum. Both Oklahoma and Texas clarified procedures for educating suspended students, emphasizing that all students - including nonviolent disruptive students - deserve an education.

School technology won broad lawmaker support, perhaps in the wake of heightened public interest in computer-aided learning and a Clinton Administration push to connect every American classroom to the Internet. All five state legislatures passed school technology legislation. Most notably, Oklahoma legislators rejected Gov. Frank Keating's proposed state K-12 telecommunications network yet laid the groundwork for school technology grant funding and more teacher training in technology. Louisiana poured $38.2 billion into a new Classroom-Based Technology fund.

Although lawmakers focused on improving traditional K-12 public schools, four of the five states continued to grapple with issues of school choice. Even among these four states, no clear policy direction was established. Oklahoma's voucher and charter school legislation failed. Arkansas tightened graduation requirements for home school students. Louisiana and Texas expanded the number of charter schools allowed in the state. Like the public, lawmakers held a spectrum of positions in this education controversy.

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