Originally created 06/13/05

GOP, Democrats differ on education spending



ATLANTA - With news last week that the state treasury would end the fiscal year June 30 with a surplus, many teachers and administrators may be asking why the extra money isn't being used to restore education budget cuts.

Democrats are quick to offer a reason. They say it shows what happens when Georgians break a 130-year habit and put a Republican in the governor's office.

"For the first time, a governor does not have education as a priority in this state," said Rep. DuBose Porter of Dublin, leader of the House Democrats.

Well, maybe.

It's true that the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 contains a $333 million "austerity cut" in what would have otherwise been allocated to individual schools based on the funding formula governed by the Quality Basic Education Act. The QBE formula determines how much state tax money goes to which local system.

Gov. Sonny Perdue directed cuts in education spending and other programs when tax collections lagged in the aftermath of the last recession. When the budget for the next fiscal year was originally written in December, there was no guarantee collections would come in 8 percent ahead of the previous year, as they are now.

Nevertheless, he did include $140 million in QBE formula funding, bringing education up to where it consumes 52 percent of the state budget. That makes education the budget priority, by definition.

Mr. Perdue's education budget for the new fiscal year is the highest in the past four years, which includes a time when his Democratic predecessor was in office.

Yet it still leaves the $333 million that wasn't budgeted for formula-based spending.

But, he added, revenues are only growing so fast, and other areas of spending - such as health care - have been growing much faster.

"We've got to do more with less," he said.

That could be the motto for the Republicans now in power.

Having to economize triggers the kind of pruning that shrinks government, a primary goal of the Grand Old Party.

Keeping a closed fist around the purse strings, even as the treasury surplus slowly begins to grow, continues the need for pruning. Also, rebuilding the state's rainy-day fund provides a cushion against having to raise taxes during the next recession.

A pending lawsuit is also likely to affect the way the state ponies up for education. A consortium of rural school districts is suing to make the state spend dramatically more.

Another factor in education funding is the launch of the student information system, a computer database that will track every child from pre-kindergarten to high school graduation, including grades, test scores and how much money is being funded for his or her education.

The system will allow the money to follow a child from school to school. Under the old system, the old campus continued to get extra money for free lunch or reading tutors for a year after a child had transferred to a new school, which struggled to provide those services without getting paid for them.

The tracking system could also facilitate the issuance of private-school tuition vouchers by ensuring that the voucher amount is geared to what the student needs.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or walter.jones@morris.com.