Education reforms may suffer as more pupils sap limited funds

Financial storm clouds loom over the nation's schools. The reason for the atmospherics is a recent United States Census Bureau report noting a 9 percent rise in the number of preschoolers between 1981 and 1985.

As these youngsters enter public schools in the second half of the decade, educators are concerned the influx of new pupils will eat up whatever extra money states and local school districts want to spend on the many education reforms passed in the last two years.

School-finance experts estimate proposed education reforms will cost 20 to 25 percent more than the $137.57 billion the National Education Association says was received by public schools in 1985.

Just to remain at the current level of performance (a level that a bevy of reports and commissions finds unacceptable), would require at least a 6 percent increase, says Stanford education Prof. Michael Kirst.

If additional money isn't found to pay for the extra students, the funds ``will have to come from the new reform programs,'' says Dr. Kirst, former president of the California State Board of Education.

Total enrollments between 1960 and 1970 grew by 9.5 million, from 36.1 million in 1960 to 45.6 million students in 1970. Enrollments peaked in 1971 at about 46 million students. Last fall the figure stood at 39.4 million, according to the National Education Association.

But the 1981-85 jump and expected future increases leave state and local school districts in the difficult position of having to spend more on schools just to stay even. This is true despite the fact that education reforms ``have only resulted in very moderate but not very substantial'' funding increases, Kirst says.

He cites, for example, two often recommended reforms: an increase in teachers' salaries by 10 percent and an extension of the 180-day school year by 10 percent. Each would cost an additional $20 billion. It will take an ``extraordinary political consensus'' to raise such sums, he says.

Increased enrollments do not necessarily mean the ``window of opportunity for meaningful school reform is closed,'' says Kent McGuire, senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States (ECS). A handful of state legislatures will move into their next legislative sessions with comprehensive bills. But what it most likely means is that states ``may single-shot aspects of reform,'' he says, rather than try for comprehensive plans.

When we think of increased spending on schools, we have to face the fact that ``The economy isn't in as good a shape as we'd like to think it is,'' says Mr. McGuire. ``It would be unrealistic to see increases of the 20 to 25 percent range people are talking about as needed.''

What concerns McGuire are states that have passed reforms and then phased in funding gradually with ``the reforms just hanging out there on their own.'' He points to the recent teachers' strike in Mississippi. The money wasn't there to deliver on promises, including higher salaries, made in the name of reform. The result was a bitter teachers' strike, he says.

The state of Washington is typical of many states that appear to be hitting financial ceilings, says Chris Pipho, a senior information specialist at ECS. ``Some 20 money bills were proposed and all but two are dead. Both of those are still pending,'' he says.

``Only Tennessee and South Carolina have come anywhere near that [20 percent] figure,'' says Kirst. ``Florida, Texas, and California, each noted for significant increases, still fall in the 5 to 10 percent range.''

But concern about increasing enrollment may be the wrong area to focus on, says Denis P. Doyle, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The fiscal shortfall, he says, must be seen in tandem with the student-teacher ratio -- a better measurement of the classroom situation. This ratio stood at 28 students to 1 teacher in 1960. By 1980 it had dropped to 19 to 1.

``I am suspicious that we came through a period of declining enrollment without much cutting (in numbers of teachers). There should be some slack, some leeway,'' says Mr. Doyle. He qualifies this, however, saying the teacher (in terms of workload) may not have seen a decline as dramatic as student-enrollment figures suggest. School systems did not cut teachers in the '70s as fast as enrollment declined because federal funding for teachers of special-needs students increased until Reagan budget cuts began in 1980.

Schools also are expected to reduce their capital expenditures as they adjust to increased enrollment. Capital costs won't be as big a factor through 1990 since most buildings needed to absorb the growth are already there, says Doyle.

In 1960, when enrollment was skyrocketing, spending for land, equipment, and buildings made up 17 percent of the estimated spending by public schools. By 1980 that share was down to 6.8 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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