ATLANTA - The federal government pumped tens of millions of dollars more into the state for education this year at the same time nearly 40 percent of Georgia districts were approving sales-tax hikes to fund school projects and state aid jumped.
Federal funding for some major education programs increased more than 20 percent this year, and will continue to rise under the federal budget deal approved last week. In selling sales-tax hikes to voters, educators said there was a desperate need for more revenue. They note there is a big difference in the use of the sales-tax proceeds and the millions that schools receive in other government funding.
The sales tax money can only be spent to build new schools and relieve property taxes. By contrast, federal funding isn't used for construction.
And some of the federal money has been slow to be delivered to state classrooms, leading conservatives to push for a more direct pipeline.
"I don't think the impact has yet been felt in local systems," said state School Superintendent Linda Schrenko.
State voters last fall approved a constitutional amendment allowing districts to hold elections to decide whether to impose a sales tax for school construction and debt retirement.
The amendment was an attempt to give districts a way to build new facilities without having to do what is traditionally politically unpopular - raise property taxes.
"It was a step forward," said Gary Ashley of the Georgia School Boards Association.
So far, Mr. Ashley said, 76 districts have won voter approval for sales tax hikes. The increases were turned down in eight districts, including Cobb County, one of the state's largest systems.
A Georgia School Superintendents Association count showed the new taxes will provide for $2.9 billion in construction projects in the districts where they were approved.
Meanwhile, state spending for education increased from $3.78 billion in fiscal 1996 to $4.1 billion last year, which ended July 1. It is budgeted to jump another $240 million this year, not including the traditional mid-year adjustment for enrollment increases.
Program-by-program breakdowns posted by the U.S. Department of Education last month show huge jumps in money appropriated by the federal government as well.
For instance, Georgia received a 14.5 percent hike - from $167.5 million to $191.9 million - in funding for the Title I program, which is aimed at teaching the basics to children from poor families.
In special education, Georgia's grant rose from $54.5 million to $74.1 million, according to U.S. Department of Education figures.
Funding for Goals 2000, which is providing seed money for districts to develop and implement school improvement plans, rose from $8.5 million to $12.1 million, and is expected to jump similarly during the upcoming year.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., a member of the House Education Committee, said the increases belie complaints in recent years that Congress is cutting back on education.
"I'm sure there will never be enough money. People involved in this, some educators, will find there is never, in their mind, enough money," Mr. Norwood said. "Maybe the people out in the counties who say they need more and more money, maybe they are not taking into account what they're getting."
Mr. Norwood said the U.S. Department of Education budget increased 15 percent this year and will climb another 10 percent - to nearly $32 billion - next year.
President Clinton has played a major role, advocating increased school spending regularly since taking office in 1993 and giving strong political backing to the U.S. Department of Education.
Federal money makes up a relatively small part of local district budgets, averaging about 6 percent in Georgia. Most money comes from local property taxes and the state.
Some of the federal grant money goes to administration and never makes it to the classroom.
"It's not as easy as to say federal funds were increased by that percentage," Mr. Ashley said. "It doesn't mean the local school districts are getting a commensurate amount of it."
John Roddy, a former U.S. Department of Education official who now handles federal programs for the Georgia DOE, said, "In a lot of cases, we're throwing good money after bad. It's not that we don't have enough money. We've got enough money.
"What we need is fewer restrictions, less red tape from the federal government."
Mr. Roddy said federal officials have used the grants to gain a measure of control over local education, funding programs that, in some cases, have proven unsuccessful.
That's a charge Republicans have brought in recent years when calling for the department to be dismantled. That's an accusation Democratic supporters of the DOE strongly deny.
U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley said last fall in an interview that 75- to 80-percent of Americans reject the idea of doing away with his agency.
"The American people associate that issue with de-emphasizing education as a national priority," he said.
Mr. Norwood is vice-chairman of a House Education subcommittee studying how the federal government spends at least $120 billion a year on education programs, scattered through 39 different agencies.
"We are trying to find out ... which ones are simply not working, which ones are a waste of money," he said.
When he held a subcommittee meeting earlier this year in Milledgeville, Mr. Norwood was criticized by some school officials, who argued he only wanted to slash federal education funding.
"Shrinking the size of government on the backs of children is no way to prepare for the 21st century," remarked Atlanta School Superintendent Ben Canada.
Like a lot of Republicans, Mr. Norwood wants to eventually see the federal government send education money directly to states and let them decide how to use it. However, he cautioned, federal officials expect better results on things like comparative international tests.
"We're in charge of these appropriations and we ought to be saying, `we are pumping dollars into education hand over fist,' now what we need to ask for is results. We need to insist if we are going to spend this many tax dollars, we need to come in first."
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