Topeka — The state budget crunch threatens the Margin of Excellence program for state universities and complicates efforts to reform education, legislators said Wednesday.
"The Margin of Excellence has made a big difference in the quality of programs," Senate Minority Leader Jerry Karr, D-Emporia, told Associated Press editors and broadcasters.
Demands for property tax relief and inadequate state revenue mean that now there is no state funding available to finance the final year of the Margin, he said.
Under the Margin request, state universities asked for $14.8 million from the Legislature to raise faculty salaries and operating budgets closer to peer levels.
If programs such as the Margin are to be financed this session, taxes must be increased or other programs cut, said House Speaker Marvin Barkis, D-Louisburg.
HOUSE Minority Leader Donna Whiteman, R-Hutchinson, said she was concerned about Gov. Joan Finney's plan to distribute property tax relief through increases in school aid.
The Legislature might be wise to consider combining increases in state aid to local school districts with promises to implement certain school reforms, Whiteman said.
She said she supports a longer school year, breakfast programs for undernourished students, work skills programs in high schools and assessments of pre-school children.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Kerr, R-Pratt, said public education will be the most important legislative issue of the 1990s.
He said the state's educational system isn't in "bad shape," but "we're not nearly as responsible to the challenges."
"We've got an educational establishment that resists change," Kerr said.
HE SAID the state has excellent districts and innovative improvements are taking place, but there are also mediocre districts in which nothing much is happening.
Meanwhile, Karr said the state didn't have a good idea of where it wants to go with education.
"We need some shared vision of where we're going for the rest of the decade," he said.
Senate President Bud Burke, R-Leawood, said he expects the Legislature to address concerns about school district funding and combine the two largest district categories.
The Lawrence school district is in the fourth of five enrollment categories. Schools in the fifth category receive more state aid per student than schools in the fourth.
Lawsuits which claim the system discriminates against the fourth enrollment category schools would provide the incentive for lawmakers to approve the change, Burke said.