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OFF AND RUNNING: In State of the State Addresses, Governors Include Proposals That Would Benefit Middle and High School Students

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"Vermont has more colleges per capita than any other state. Still, sadly, Vermont leads the nation in the percentage of high school graduates who leave their state to go to college."

Earlier this month, governors around the country began delivering their “state of the state” addresses. As in years past, Straight A’s will focus on speeches that include proposals to help middle and high school students.

California

Last fall, California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger (R) saw his approval ratings drop dramatically after he campaigned vigorously for Proposition 76, which would have capped state spending and cost schools billions of dollars. Ultimately, Proposition 76 was soundly defeated in the November special election, in large part because of ads run by education advocates against Schwartzenegger and the proposition. Last week, during his state of the state address, Schwartzenegger made a 180-degree turn when he proposed a 10-year, $222 billion construction project intended to enhance the state’s freeways, jails, ports, waterways, and schools.

As part of the proposal, K 12 education would receive $26.3 billion over the next decade, helping to construct more than 2,000 small schools and 40,000 classrooms, and to modernize another 140,000 classrooms. Schwarzenegger noted that a quarter of a million more students will attend California schools over the next 10 years.

Schwartzenegger also announced that the budget he releases this week will include a $4 billion increase in education funding, $1.67 billion of which would be used to repay the money the state borrowed from schools in recent years to balance the budget. There appears, however, to be some disagreement over how the money will be spent: the governor hopes to direct the money toward vocational education classes, grants to pay for new art, music, and physical education programs, teacher training, and high school exit-exam tutoring, while Los Angeles Unified School Superintendent Roy Romer has said he would like to use the money to reduce the size of middle and high school math classes, many of which hover at about 40 students.

In addition, the governor noted that California’s Proposition 49 afterschool initiative kicks in this year, and will provide an additional $428 million for afterschool programs. “This will make our state the only one in the nation to offer comprehensive afterschool programs,” he said. “Every elementary and middle school can have a program so that working parents will know that their children will be in a safe environment-getting help with their homework, doing arts and physical activities. This will be good for both the children and the parents.”

New York

In delivering his 12th and final state of the state address, New York Governor George Pataki (R), who is retiring at the end of his third term, proposed a series of education initiatives that he said would make New York the national leader in preparing students for careers in math, science, and engineering. Citing Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat, which juxtaposes foreign competition and proficiency, especially in math and science fields, with the poor educational performance of American students, Pataki noted that “in tomorrow’s economy, our stiffest competition for jobs, investment, and opportunity will not come from places like South Carolina or Indiana; it will come from places like South Korea and India.”

In his speech, Pataki called for renewing New York’s commitment to providing additional funding to high-needs schools in New York City and across the state, but he failed to directly address the lawsuit that the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) brought against the state. In the suit, which CFE won, a state court ruled that New York’s schools are unconstitutionally inadequate and the state must come up with more money for them. Thus far, Pataki and the New York Legislature have yet to agree on with a statewide solution to comply with the court’s order.

Pataki proposed providing middle school students with new math and science summer programs at community colleges and giving parents a chance to provide their kids with the tutoring, afterschool programs, and other educational opportunities they need to succeed. He also called for a “dramatic expansion of charter schools” throughout the state and the creation of more math and science high schools that focus specifically on teaching the skills that students need in the 21st century. He proposed free tuition for students who pursue math and science degrees at any campus within the State University of New York or City University of New York systems and commit to staying in the state to teach.

Vermont

While Schwartzenegger was calling for more education funding, Vermont Governor James Douglas (R) called for a cap on education spending, to help slow down property tax increases, in his state of the state address last week.

He noted that education spending has grown by nearly 60 percent since 1999 while enrollment has dropped 8 percent. To keep up with the spending, property taxes have increased by 8 percent annually since 1999. Under Douglas’s plan, education property tax growth would be capped at 3.5 percent, a target he called “sustainable” and one that “allows room for school budgets to grow responsibly to meet the needs of a community.” His plan would allow a town to spend more if it could obtain a supermajority of 60 percent of voters.

Democrats reacted negatively to the governor’s proposal to cap education spending. “Gov. Douglas has identified the property tax as a serious burden,” said House Speaker Gaye Symington, in the Democrat response to the address. “We agree. But while the governor has named the problem, he has not offered a real solution. To impose top-down, state-knows-best, cookie-cutter spending caps ignores the real pressures on school budgets.”

One idea that did intrigue members of both political parties was the governor’s plan to create a 15-year, $175 million college scholarship program that would offer tuition assistance to more than 12,000 Vermonters who attend any of the state’s colleges and universities. Under the plan, students would receive up to 50 percent off the cost of tuition if they agreed to live and work in Vermont for 3 years after college graduation. If they decided to leave the state before their 3-year commitment was up, the money would be treated as a loan.

“For many years, I have expressed a deep concern that Vermont is exporting too many of our youth,” he said. “Vermont has more colleges per capita than any other state. Still, sadly, Vermont leads the nation in the percentage of high school graduates who leave their state to go to college.”

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