In a typical year, the state education budget process resembles the do-si-so:
The governor takes some money out, the Legislature puts some money back in. Everybody allemandes to the right and goes home humming.
This year, it’s more a dance of death.
Under the weight of ballooning deficits and fallen revenues, Gov. Sonny Perdue is whacking wildly at the budget, and many of the blows are landing on education. With state and local spending of about $18 billion, schools are an obvious target.
But as K-12 school leaders lament often, they have absorbed state austerity cuts every year since 2003. Collectively, those reductions tally $2.83 billion.
At legislative meetings last week, educators warned that the cuts now threaten the fundamental mission of public schools, including educationally costly scheduling contortions forced by cost-cutting.
For example, Wilcox County just adopted a four-day school week, following Peach County, which is already on a compressed schedule. Carroll and Polk counties are also considering fewer, but longer, days. Cook is debating slicing 20 days off the year, lengthening its school days and extending its summer break.
Can schools fiddle with their calendars without affecting student achievement?
“That’s the $64,000 question,” says Herb Garrett, spokesman for the Georgia Superintendents Association.
“For the short-term, maybe so. Maybe you can survive something like this for a year or two if you feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But if that light turns out to be the head lamp of an onrushing train, no,” he said. “If this goes on long-term, I can’t see this doesn’t have a negative impact on achievement.”
At a House Education Committee meeting last week, legislators also fretted about the negative effect of raising class size, a likely outcome of the budget crunch.
State Rep. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), vice chair of the committee, said that systems could realize a half billion in savings if they pushed up class size by two students across all grades next year.
At a recent conference, School Superintendent Kathy Cox reluctantly endorsed flexibility in both spending and class size for local systems.
“There is no way they can manage their budgets with what the state is giving them and what has happened to local revenues,” she said. “They have to be able to move money around and raise class size. Do we want them to go from where they are now to 40 or 45 kids in a class like they are doing in parts of California? No. But they have to have some flexibility.”
Rather than increase class size, state Rep. Brian Thomas (D-Lilburn) wondered whether it might be better to increase the cigarette tax or trim the many corporate tax credits.
“There are ways to do it if the majority party has the will,” he said.
However, Thomas might as well have suggested selling spare body parts. With the governor’s mansion up for grabs this year, Republicans are not about to approve tax increases for cash-starved schools. “I think a lot of folks want us to try and find the money for schools,” state Rep. Ed Lindsey (R-Atlanta) said, “but they want us to find it in existing revenues rather than dig deeper in their back pockets.”
That may be true, but other states have shielded schools through new taxes. Last week, voters in Oregon overcame their historical aversion to raising taxes — they haven’t sanctioned one since 1930 — and approved tax increases to stop the bleeding of their schools.
The education cuts in Georgia will be so deep and so wide that virtually every school and class will feel the pain. Georgians may be willing to accept tax hikes if they understand that education is under siege.
To save $56 million, DeKalb proposes seven furlough days for teachers and 15 for administrators. Among other cuts, the county may halve its pre-K classes and offer summer school classes online only.
In Fulton, fears for elementary school music have mobilized parents to start a petition drive. “If you take instrumental music out of the elementary schools there will be even more flight into the private schools that offer these opportunities. That would be a tragedy for our school system,” warns the petition.
Nothing is safe. At a House budget hearing last week, the head of an early intervention program for blind babies asked lawmakers to reconsider the decision to eliminate all state money for her program, the only one of its kind in the state.
Some lawmakers suggest that communities and parents step in to help their battered schools, but this budget crunch is beyond PTA bake sales.
That is, unless someone has a recipe for a million-dollar cake.
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