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STATE OF THE STATE ADDRESSES: Though Many Governors Consider K–12 Education a Priority, Funding Still Cut Due to Economic Crisis

“By using very little of the rainy day funds, you’re taking $80 million out of education’s hide.”

As in the previous issueStraight A’s continues to report on governors’ state of the state addresses, focusing on their remarks around K–12 education.

Colorado: Ritter Plans to Implement More Reforms Despite Economic Downturn

In his state of the state address, Governor Bill Ritter Jr. (D) emphasized the importance of education in reversing the economic downturn. “[T]he best economic strategy is an education strategy,” he said during his January 8 speech. He praised Colorado’s workforce as being among the best educated in the country, but noted that the state still had a lot of work to do, listing achievement gaps, college graduation rates, and lack of progress in student learning as things that needed to be fixed.

Ritter told his constituents to expect the implementation of more reform initiatives. These will include a concurrent enrollment plan to allow high school students statewide to earn college credits before graduating—a program that, Ritter said, will set “high, rigorous academic standards while keeping college affordable and accessible.” The plan also addresses two of his main education goals: cutting the dropout rate in half and doubling the number of college degrees earned by Colorado students.

However, because Colorado, like many other states, faces large budget deficits for Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 and FY 2010, Ritter has had to make some cuts in education spending, even though his budget would meet a requirement in the state’s constitution to increase education spending every year. For example, Ritter would save $34.5 million by freezing the construction of full-day kindergarten classrooms and $4.9 million by cutting funds earmarked for the construction of charter schools. In addition, he called for a $30 million cut for colleges and universities.

Idaho: Otter Reduces K–12 Education Funding After Avoiding Cuts Last Year

Though public education funding was exempt from budget holdbacks in the last fiscal year, that will not be the case in Fiscal Year (FY) 2010, said Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) in his state of the state address on January 12.

Last year, the state drew upon an education reserve fund it had established in better economic times. The fund is still available, but Otter said in his speech that he did not want to take any more than 35 percent of the total reserves to get through the rest of FY 2009 and 2010. This year, K–12 education spending will be cut by about 5.3 percent. Otter stressed that the roughly $1.4 billion allotted for K–12 education “still represents almost half our total General Fund budget,” adding, “[M]y proposed public schools budget is reduced far less than I’m recommending for other state agencies,” a few of which saw their funding slashed by over one third.

Otter also wants to move some of the state school board’s responsibilities to the Idaho State Department of Education or other government agencies to allow the board to focus more on policy setting, oversight, and higher education. The governor also proposed raising fuel taxes and car registration fees, an idea reviled by both parties. His fellow Republicans are opposed to increasing taxes while Idaho’s economy faces its worst downturn since the 1980s. Meanwhile, Democrats were critical of Otter’s plan because it values “potholes over people,” as Elliot Werk, chairman of the Idaho Senate Democratic Caucus, told the Idaho Statesman.

Werk added that he thought Otter should withdraw more money from the state’s reserve fund. “By using very little of the rainy day funds, you’re taking $80 million out of education’s hide,” Werk said. House Democratic Leader John Rusche agreed. “He’s asking for a tax increase for transportation,” he said. “To do that at a time when K–12 and higher education—things that build our future—are going to take hits is misplaced priorities.”

Kansas: Sebelius Tries to Maintain State’s Investment in Education

In her state of the state speech on January 12, Governor Kathleen Sebelius (D) declared her intent to keep education as a major funding priority despite the state’s financial shortfalls. “In an economic downturn, decisions can have dire consequences and a lifetime impact on future generations,” she said. “No student can afford to ‘miss’ a few years of quality education….We invested millions in our schools, our students, our teachers, and our future. And even now, looking through the lens of today’s economy, that investment was worth it and worth keeping.”

However, some lawmakers are less than happy with Sebelius’s plan to avoid significantly cutting public education funding, given that Kansas faces a roughly $1.2 billion shortfall for 2009 and 2010. “The bulk of new money we’ve received over the past few years has all gone into K-12,”said Kevin Yoder, Republican chairman of the Kansas House Appropriations Committee, in an Associated Press story on the issue. “We are starving the rest of government for the sake of keeping K-12 harmless.”

Sebelius did say that the downturn would keep schools from receiving $183 million in increased aid that they were promised through a 2006 law, and proposed to cut $24 million in public education funding for Fiscal Year (FY) 2010. However, the $24 million represents just 0.6 percent of the total funds. In contrast, Kansas’ higher education system would have to cut its budget by $25 million for this fiscal year and $56 million more for FY 2010—and lose 9 percent of its state funds.

Under Sebelius’s budget, 52 percent of state tax revenues would go to public education, a share that has increased by 39 percent over the past four years, says the article. Sebelius has argued that such an increase was necessary to make up for comparatively low education spending levels in the 1990s.

Oregon: Kulongoski Wants to “Build a Protective Wall Around Funding for Education”

“If we’re going to turn unemployment checks into paychecks, the state must invest in its human infrastructure,” Governor Ted Kulongoski (D)said in his state of the state address on January 12. Kulongoski added that he considered education a major concern, calling it his “top priority for this upcoming biennium…because only by creating the best trained, best skilled, best educated workforce in America will we be able to create the employment opportunities that are this state’s future,” he said. “I’ve been saying for months that the way to turn despair into hope, and uncertainty into prosperity, is to build a protective wall around funding for education.”

Kulongoski did not, however, mention specific budgetary amounts for public schools, or most of his other main priorities, which include investing in renewable energy technology, building a larger science infrastructure, and rebuilding and improving Oregon’s transportation system.

Though Kulongoski did not explicitly describe K–12 allocations for FY 2010, a December press release stated that he dedicated 54 percent of the state’s general fund to pre-K through postsecondary education. Specifically, he wanted to budget $6.39 billion to help school districts “continue their efforts to improve success, keep class sizes reasonable and school doors open for a full year,” and, in light of the economic crisis, intended to use about $160 million from the state’s education reserve fund to maintain progress for the second year of the biennium.

However, Kulongoski said in his January 12 address that the budget presented in December was based on a November revenue forecast. “You and I both know that’s not where we are right now,” he added, and said that there would be an updated forecast in March, for which he predicted even lower numbers.

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