I was at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education program for education writers most of Friday.
Here is the message of the day in a single line:
THERE IS NO MONEY. NONE. NOT EVEN A DIME IN THE COUCH CUSHIONS.
Among the presenters: Kathy Cox, state school superintendent, Erin Hames, education policy director for the governor, Alan Essig of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute and Herb Garrett of the Georgia Superintendents Association. The teacher of the year was there as were many state people and representatives of the state’s education groups.
Without tax increases, Georgia schools will most certainly take considerable hits in the next two years.
How deep is the financial hole at the state level? So deep, said Essig, that even wiping out 20 state agencies and the legislative branch and firing the 13,000 employees in those agencies wouldn’t plug it.
And it’s no better in local communities, which are also under water due to falling property digests and record unemployment.
Cox said fewer reductions to education by the Legislature and more flexibility would be starters.
“We have to give local systems the ability to manage through this,” said Cox. “There is no way they can manage their budgets with what the state is giving them and what has happened to local revenues. They have to able to move money around and raise class size. There is no way around it. 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.”
Explaining that 80 percent of education spending goes to teacher salaries, Essig said there are very limited ways to save money, including pay teachers less or have less school.
He criticized the Legislature’s stubborn insistence on holding the line on new taxes, saying most states have not made cuts as deep and wide as Georgia because they were willing to take the political heat and impose increases in fees and taxes. Yet, Georgia is among the top 10 states in the size of its deficit.
Despite the state’s money crisis, Essig said the General Assembly is still contemplating new special interest tax breaks that will eliminate hundreds of millions from the tax rolls each year.
If those tax breaks are granted, the money has to be made up somewhere, and it will likely be education.
Essig suggested the state consider new revenue sources, such as increasing in the cigarette tax, closing the corporate loopholes and putting a temporary 1 percent surcharge on households with incomes above $400,000. (Not likely in an election year.)
Following Essig with equal solemnity was Herb Garrett of the Superintendents Association. He outlined the local funding woes from the district’s point of view — continued and deeper QBE cuts, reduction state equalizing grants and the shorting of systems in the local five mills share equation. He lamented the continued and dramatic underfunding of school transportation by the state, explaining that local systems are now picking up 75 percent of the bus costs.
Susan Walker, policy and research director for the Georgia Partnership, outlined the top 10 issues of education for 2010. Her list included the grim budget, Race to the Top, data systems, turning around low achieving schools, charters, litigation, rural Georgia, college access, great teachers and standards and assessments. (The report on the top 10 issues is available for free. Go to the Parternship site for info.)
Given the uncertain political future in Georgia and the shaky economy, Walker said, “Stability and predictability appear lights at the end of a distant tunnel.”
Many speakers referenced Georgia’s Race to the Top application, which was among 41 vying for a slice of a new $4.35 education billion pie. (Here is the link to Georgia’s 200-page Race to the Top application. )
The Obama White House created the competition to spur states to new inovations to improve k-12 .
There are two deadlines to apply. Georgia made the first one this week, but it is not clear how many states will get grants in this first go-around. Erin Hames of the governor’s office said it could be as few as three or four, meaning that there would be a good pot of cash left for the next RTTT deadline, which is in the spring.
The state folks seemed confident that Georgia’s 200-page application for RTTT money was a contender, helped along by a Gates Foundation grant that paid for an outside consultant to help share the document.
But if Georgia gets the money – which could be as much as $462 million – it won’t solve all our problems.
Cox gave a reality check on the Race to the Top funds, noting that much of it is earmarked for Title 1 students and schools. (A Title I school has to have 40% or more low-income students.)
In other words, Georgia can’t count on the feds to hand us money to educate all 1.75 million students in our public schools.
It’s time for school bake sales. Anybody have a recipe for a million dollar poundcake?