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STATE OF THE STATES 2010: Despite Discouraging Fiscal Outlooks, Education Still a Priority

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“If we give high school students the opportunity for a merit scholarship, if we challenge them to reach higher to take personal responsibility for their futures, many will."

ALASKA: Parnell Calls for Merit Scholarships

During his first state of the state address on January 20, Governor Sean Parnell (R) called for a merit scholarship program that would give high school students the opportunity to earn tuition assistance by enrolling and succeeding in a more rigorous curriculum.

“If we give high school students the opportunity for a merit scholarship, if we challenge them to reach higher to take personal responsibility for their futures, many will,” Parnell said. “These students will transform our economy and positively change the trajectory of Alaska’s future for generations.”

Under the Governor’s Performance Scholarship program, students must take four years of math, science, and English, and three years of social studies. The better students perform in these courses, the greater their opportunity for tuition rewards at an in-state university or job-training program. For example, students who maintain a “C+” average would be eligible to earn 50 percent of their tuition; students who earn a “B” average would be eligible to earn 75 percent; and students who earn an “A” average would be eligible for a full scholarship to an in-state university or job-training program of choice.
Parnell proposed funding the scholarship program by setting up a $400 million savings account and collecting interest and investment earnings over a period of thirty years. Parnell said, “That way, thirty years from now, we will still have the $400 million, but we will also have a workforce better prepared for the future.”

CALIFORNIA: Schwarzenegger Promises to Protect Education Funding

California faces a nearly $20 billion budget deficit over the next eighteen months—$6.6 billion for the rest of the current budget year and $13.3 billion for the upcoming year. Despite the fiscal shortfalls and the required budget slashes to other areas, during his January 6 state of the state addressGovernor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) pledged to spare education from further hits in the budget he will propose for 2011.

“First, as bitter as the words are in my mouth, we face additional cuts,” Schwarzenegger said. “We know what that means. We know the pain it entails. I mean, what can we say at this point except the truth, that we have no choice? But I am drawing this line. Because our future economic well-being is so dependent upon education, I will protect education funding in this budget.”

California’s public K–12 schools have suffered through several years of budget slashes. In 2008, the state cut nearly $18 million in public education funding. This year, K–12 spending still accounts for about 37 percent of California’s overall $91.4 billion budget. Schwarzenegger applauded recently passed legislation that would allow parents to transfer their students from low-performing schools without the principal’s permission. He also cited the measure to link student performance to teacher evaluations. Both of these legislative achievements were enacted to help the state win a piece of the Race to the Top pie, a federal program that provides competitive grants to states that are creating the conditions for education reform.

Additionally, Schwarzenegger announced that California had its priorities “out of whack” by spending 45 percent more on prisons than on higher education. He proposed a constitutional amendment to decrease the amount states spend on prisons and direct the funds to higher education systems. In a January 26 report, the Legislative Analyst Office—California’s nonpartisan fiscal and policy advisor—said this proposal “inappropriately pits two program areas against each other” and “implicitly suggests there is a linkage of crucial budgetary significance.”

IOWA: Culver Calls for 2 Percent Increase in Education

Despite the current weak economy, Governor Chet Culver (D), who plans to run for a second term, reassured the people of Iowa that, “Today, the budget is balanced. And it has been balanced every single day that I’ve had the privilege to be governor of this state.”

During his January 12 state of the state address, Culver proposed a 2 percent increase for Iowa’s public schools. He called on lawmakers to commit $100 million from the reserve fund to help cash-strapped schools—particularly in rural areas—ride out the next year. The governor also called for legislation that would require school districts to spend down some of their cash reserves to avoid transferring the burden to taxpayers.

Culver emphasized the importance of quickly passing legislation so the state would be eligible for Race to the Top. He said, “Let’s make sure Iowa doesn’t miss out on this great opportunity for our students. Let’s make sure Iowa remains on the cutting edge in education reform.”

Iowa could gain up to $175 million from the competitive grant program. Culver explained how the federal dollars could help fund innovation in the classroom, focus on turning around low-performing schools, and allow for increased parental choice.

MISSISSIPPI: Barbour Makes Plea to Lawmakers for Budgeting Flexibility

During his seventh state of the state address on January 20, Governor Haley Barbour (R) focused on changing a current budgeting law in order to achieve more budgeting flexibility and to avoid making major cuts in K–12 education.

According to current law, the governor can cut any line, department, or agency up to 5 percent but cannot cut any account by more than 5 percent except for debt service. The law also stipulates that any cut above 5 percent must be the same for every department and agency. The Mississippi Senate already passed a law that would allow the governor to cut individual agencies by up to 10 percent without having to make uniform cuts across the board, so Haley urged the Mississippi House of Representatives to do the same before the Senate bill expires at the end of the year. Without such legislative action, every department, including education, will be subjected to cuts in excess of 8 percent.

Soon after the speech, the Mississippi House passed a bill calling for the governor to tap $61 million in stimulus money and $50 million from the rainy day fund to balance the current budget. The proposal also would exempt certain budget items from the 5 percent law. Barbour, who wanted even more flexibility, called the legislation “unacceptable” in a January 20 Clarion Ledger story.

On February 5, Barbour announced $21 million in new spending cuts including $1.1 million in education spending. The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, an initiative to funnel state money to low-revenue school districts, will suffer most of the hit.

MISSOURI: Nixon Announces Series of Education Initiatives in a Year of Budget Cuts

“And as we discussed my budget, and where and how much to cut, I took one thing off the table: K–12 classrooms,” said Governor Jay Nixon (D) during his January 20 state of the state address. “Our children are precious; their education is too important. So even in these difficult times, I am recommending increased funding, at a record level, for our K–12 classrooms.”

The increased funding would boost state aid to K–12 schools in fiscal year 2011 to just over $3 billion. Nixon commended the state’s school teachers and promised to maintain $37.5 million in funding for a career-ladder program. He also stressed the importance of education after high school and announced a tuition freeze—for a second year in a row—at the state’s two- and four-year public colleges and universities.

The governor also talked at length about the state’s A+ scholarship program, citing an inherent inequity flaw. The program offers two years of community college tuition for high school kids who maintain good grades, give back to the community, and stay out of trouble with the law, but the program only serves the two thirds of Missouri students who are enrolled at one of the state’s 274 designated A+ schools. Nixon asked state lawmakers to open the program to “every hard working public high school student in Missouri.”

NEW MEXICO: Richardson Calls for Hispanic Education Act

“Even in a time of shortfall, I insist that education must remain our top investment. Let me also be very clear, budget cuts are not an excuse for cutting quality, for rolling back accountability, for lowering our standards, or for giving up our responsibility to educate our children,” saidGovernor Bill Richardson (D) during his state of the state speech on January 19.

Richardson called for all local school boards to receive financial training in order to ensure that schools are accountable for the monies they spend. He also proposed that school boards develop strict policies and procedures to prevent credit card abuse.

The governor recommended that New Mexico be the first state to develop a Hispanic Education Act. Such legislation would help close the achievement gap and increase accountability by creating an annual report card outlining the status of Hispanic education. Richardson also drew attention to the Graduate New Mexico initiative, which is an effort to bring back dropouts and help them complete their education. He supports increased choices and charter schools and will fight any effort to place moratoriums on new schools.

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