States Scramble to Upgrade Schools

From Maine to California, improving education is far and away the top priority of the states this year, and governors have all kinds of ideas about how to do it.

The focus on schools is partly dirven by pressure from voters who want their kids to learn more, but even more so by the intense competitiveness of today's economy. Ray Schappach, executive director of the National Governors' Association, says governors are looking at how to position their states to attrct better firms and higher paying jobs, and realize it all boils down to education - companies are going to locate where there is a trained workforce.

"What we're finding is movement on the testing and assessment and accountability areas ... And a willingness to put more money into education. That's the area of big initiative out of the states," Scheppach told a Washington conference this week.

In Maine, Independent Gov. Angus King is seeking an extra $55 million for public schools and says his state must create a community college system. California's new Democratic Gov Gray Davis has called a special session of the legislature to work on education reform.

Nevada's Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn would use some of his state's pay-out from the $206 billion tobacco settlement to establish "millennium scholarships" that would students with a B-average or better go to college. West Virginia's Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood has a similar scholarship plan, but it would not be financed with tobacco settlement money.

Underwood, a former college president, would provide up to 70 percent of tuition at in-state colleges for students with a B average or better.

"This effort should encourage more of our young people to be ready for the 21st century job market," he said in his state-of-the-state address.

Jesse Ventura, Minnesota's colorful new Reform governor, is also preaching the virtues of education reform. But he breaks ranks with some of his colleagues at paying for college.

"You don't need the government," Ventura told a crowd of high school students soon after his election last November. "If you're smart enough to go to college, you're smart enough to figure out how to get there."

Minnesota has seen a drop in the number of graduates going directly to four-year colleges. According to the Minnesota House Research Department, 40 percent of the state's graduating seniors went directly to college in 1996 compared to 48 percent in 1987.

Here is partial summary of what other states are doing:

-- Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) has proposed a budget that raises funding for public schools by nearly a quarter billion dollars. Ridge wants to require teaching candidates to maintain a 3.0 grade point average, and major in the subject they intend to teach.

--New York spent last year revamping teaching standards. This year, Republican Gov. George Pataki intends to put teeth in reform by ending principal tenure. The move will make principals accountable for failing schools.

--North Carolina ranks 48th nationally on college admission test scores, but the state has been recognized for making significant across-the-board progress. Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt wants to produce report cards for each school, and have the state tell parents and taxpayers about test scores, class size and teacher qualification.

"We need a single sheet of paper that will tell us how we're doing and whether we're on track to be first in America by 2010, " Hunt said in his state-of-the state address this week.

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, wants to spend $5.5 million for a comprehensive reading program that aims to have all children reading by 3rd grade.

Vermont has only one teacher with national board certification. Democratic Gov. Howard Dean would pay for half the certification costs for teachers who wish to obtain the credential.

"We know that Vermont's schools do very, very well on a national basis. But our competition is not New Hampshire or Texas; our competition is Taiwan, Singapore and Germany," Dean said.

Texas has one of the toughest school accountability systems in the nation, according to Education Week's annual survey. During his re-election campaign, Republican Gov. George W. Bush promised to stop social promotion in schools, but had to backpeddle some in the face of pressure from parents, students, school boards and legislators..

Texas legislators are currently considering a watered-down plan to end the practice of letting students go to the next grade before they have mastered their present grade.

Many education initiatives are being replicated in various parts of the nation. Indiana and New Jersey are among the states considering all-day kindergarten. Bonus money for good teachers is a popular idea throughout the country.

One of the most interesting bonus ideas was offered by a representative in the state of Washington. Modelled on the military housing allowance, it would give teachers a pay differential based on housing costs.

Tags: Education