States Scramble to Contain Ed. Shortfalls

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In Virginia, the board of education will accept a freeze on funding for state-mandated minimum standards for public schools. In Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland says the economy could make it difficult to provide an overall increase in funding for schools under his upcoming education plan. And in Alabama, efforts are on to prevent drastic cuts in school budget funding.

Budget woes continued to affect education funding around the nation, as states struggled to ward off major shortfalls under a teetering economy.

The Virginia board of education will not ask for more funding for the Standards of Quality, state-mandated minimum goals for public schools, because, its members say in their recommendations to the governor and legislature, they acknowledge the current economic challenges and the funding constraints.

“I think this is the best we can do in the situation we’re involved in,” board President Mark E. Emblidge said Thursday at the board’s business meeting.

Earlier in the fall, the board wanted to press the General Assembly to fully fund the Standards of Quality. But it instead voted Thursday to ask the General Assembly to give local school divisions the explicit ability to use other existing sources of state money — including programs specifically paid for by the state Lottery Fund — to pay for new reading and math specialists, data coordinators, and teachers to help the growing population of English-language learners.

The board wants the General Assembly to “give each school division the flexibility to respond to their special needs,” Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said. For example, if approved, school divisions that have a high number of English learners would be able to shift funds from the state Prevention, Intervention and Remediation program, which has an estimated $69.5 million for the 2010 fiscal year, to help those students.

The board has long recommended several other measures that remain unfunded, including staffing requirements that call for one full-time principal in every elementary school, middle school and high school; one assistant principal for every 400 students in elementary school, middle school and high school; and certain staff-to-student ratios to help children who are blind or vision-impaired. The estimated state cost of those proposed measures is $185.2 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year, plus $148.5 million in local costs.

The Standards of Quality drive nearly 90 percent of state funding for public K-12 education and are up for revision every two years. They set minimum objectives mandated by the state constitution and include school staffing, teacher salaries, accreditation and testing requirements.

The panel said it intends to seek approval and full funding of the standards starting in the two-year budget cycle that starts in 2010.

Remedies Sought

In Ohio, Strickland’s plan includes classroom changes and a fix of the state’s current school-funding system. He has said his long-awaited proposal will provide a net increase in money for schools but the current economy will make that hard.

He will present the plan as part of the two-year budget he’ll put before lawmakers early next year and has said he will take the proposal to the ballot if lawmakers don’t approve it.

The Ohio Supreme Court has found the state’s school-funding system unconstitutional four times.

Meanwhile, the board that oversees Alabama’s largest savings account, the Alabama Trust Fund, has taken steps that will help keep the state education budget from being sharply cut.

The board’s vice chairman, state Finance Director Jim Main, said the governor has made no decision about when to declare proration, or an across-the-board cut in spending. But it could be next month, and the board acted Thursday to make sure it has cash available next month if the governor needs it.

The rainy day constitutional amendment approved by Alabama voters on Nov. 4 increased the amount of money the governor can borrow from the trust fund once he declares proration. That money can be used to balance the budget and prevent cuts in spending.

Vol. 28, Issue 14

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