Education, education - that's the word from governors now

For the fourth time since winning the presidency, Ronald Reagan has made it clear that Washington is not the place to look for money for educational reform. This message, reiterated in the President's State of the Union address Wednesday, has not been lost on the states. When the Soviets lofted Sputnik into space and panicked the American scientific and defense communities in 1957, the impetus for school reform, especially in the areas of science and math curricula , came from Washington. Today, the programs and the money stem from state initiatives, with direction and leadership coming from numerous governorships.

A Monitor survey of a number of state-of-the-state addresses shows education reform to be the leading issue on many state agendas.

Surprisingly, Southern governors appear to be spearheading the reform drive, reversing the region's history of underfunding education. Comprehensive education reform programs tied to increases in the state sales tax are pending in South Carolina and Tennessee. Similar programs have already been passed in Mississippi, Florida, and Arkansas.

Then Mississippi Gov. William Winter (D) was the first Southern governor to lead state-based efforts, with a sweeping $86 million program adopted in 1982. At the urging of Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton, the Arkansas Legislature last year passed a 1-cent sales tax increase, the first in 26 years, which is earmarked for education. Gov. Charles S. Robb (D) of Virginia has organized five task forces on education since coming into office in 1980.

Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) called the Tennessee Legislature into special session Jan. 10 to weigh education reforms that would cost the state more than $ 1 billion over the next three years.The session is expected to last for five weeks and focus on a merit-pay plan that is being watched nationally.

Gov. James Hunt (D) of North Carolina hopes his record of education reform will tip the balance in a senatorial race between he and incumbent Jesse Helms (R). The campaign is billed as the ''old'' South against the ''new,'' with education reform a ''new South'' issue.

But the South holds no monopoly for executive leadership on education. That topic was the centerpiece of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis's State of the State address. The Democratic governor called for state accreditation of school districts every five years, expanding the core curriculum, and lengthening the school year.

Gov. Thomas H. Kean (R) of New Jersey called on colleges and universities to be a breeding ground for high-technology research.

New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) unveiled an ambitious array of education initiatives in his State of the State speech, with the emphasis on equitable school financing, establishing a state teacher corps to attract talented teachers, and expanding computer instruction.

Governor Cuomo promised to ''spend substantially more money on education this year.'' But in a controversial move that some say could jeopardize his entire reform package, he is seeking to fund the new education programs through legalized betting on professional baseball, football, and basketball.

In contrast, California Gov. George Deukmejian (R) told his state Legislature that the state - which was flirting with bankruptcy a year ago - will now be able to set aside $1 billion for an emergency fund, while also funding the second year of an $830 million school reform plan.

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