Cox urges flexibility for struggling Ga. schools

ATLANTA - The state's top education chiefs on Wednesday railed against deep cuts Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed for schools and colleges saying they could jeopardize student gains in the classroom.

State Education Superintendent Kathy Cox and Board of Regents Chancellor Errol Davis urged state legislators to invest in the future of Georgia's students, which they tied directly to the state's future success.

Cox warned Georgia's budget crisis could mean setbacks for a state that has been seeing gains in student test scores and graduation rates. Davis said Georgia must plan now to remain competitive with neighboring states in the coming years.

Both testified before a joint legislative appropriations committee on Wednesday.

Even as she touted the state's progress in student achievement, Cox was frustrated as she outlined the cuts to the budget for the current fiscal year, which total more than $479 million. Elementary and secondary education is seeing another 4 percent cut in state funding. Other state agencies are seeing even deeper cuts of between 8 and 9 percent.

"My fear and concern is that the budget environment might put all this great progress we've seen to a halt," Cox said. "The 2011 budget takes away our ability as a state to do anything to help our schools."

Lawmakers sounded frustrated too, as many have been fielding calls from constituents about how the cuts have been affecting students statewide. Cox has asked lawmakers to give school systems more flexibility in spending and class size to help mitigate the shortfalls, which could force local districts to increase property taxes.

Legislators quizzed Cox about possible options to further trim the budget, including shortening school weeks and standardizing school calendars.

The governor's proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year would cut about $101 million from the University System of Georgia, made up of 35 public colleges and universities.

Higher education has seen more than 2,400 jobs lost. And like K-12 teachers, employees of the state's college system have been forced to take six unpaid furlough days in the current fiscal year. Davis half-jokingly suggested that legislators help themselves when they help higher education.

"It makes your job easier when you have more educated Georgians," he told them. "If you were looking for a way to increase tax revenues without changing the tax code, you can invest in higher education."

The budget crisis, hurting agencies statewide, will mean for colleges fewer library acquisitions, delays in maintenance and repairs of facilities, shorter work weeks in the summer, and fewer tutors and advisers for students.