Stimulating public education

Stimulating public education

May 27th, 2009 by Kelli Gauthier in News

Tennessee's elementary and secondary schools are getting a smaller percentage of the state's federal stimulus money for education than is the case in other states, a new report states.

The remaining 15 states whose applications for education stabilization funds have been approved are spending the majority of that money on K-12 education, according to a study by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.

But in Tennessee, most of the money is going to the state's colleges and universities.

In Georgia, slightly more than 60 percent of the state's stabilization money will be used for K-12 schools, the Ochs report says.

Tennessee's allocation was not up to Gov. Phil Bredesen and was not meant to slight K-12 education, said Tennessee's Deputy to the Governor John Morgan. In order to receive the funds, state officials had to restore formula cuts previously made.

Tennessee colleges and universities received more funding cuts in the last couple of years than K-12 education, so higher education got a greater share of stimulus dollars, Mr. Morgan said.

"We really didn't have any choice. The first thing we had to do was restore our prior cuts to higher education," he said. "In K-12, we have not cut our formula funding (Basic Education Program), so there were no formula fundings to restore. Higher education had not been so fortunate."

Although Georgia's final breakdown also is determined by the U.S. Department of Education formula, the state's lawmakers seem to be more concerned with protecting K-12 over higher education anyway, said Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

"In K-12, you can either cut teachers or you can increase property taxes. With the Board of Regents, there are other funding sources; you can increase tuition," he said. "There's a sense that the Board of Regents has more fluff and it can do more cuts than K-12."

Chuck Cantrell, spokesman for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said the school expects about $15 million in stimulus money. The funds likely will be used for technology and sustainability projects that will save the school money in the long run, he said.

Messages left for Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales and Ochs Center President and CEO David Eichenthal were not returned Tuesday.

Unlike other states, which are using the bulk of their stabilization funds to stave off deep education cuts this year and next, Tennessee officials are saving more than 43 percent of the allocation until fiscal year 2011, the Ochs Center study says.

Only Mississippi plans to leave a higher percentage of its allocation - about 52 percent - unspent in the current and upcoming fiscal years, the report says.

Mr. Morgan said it made sense to spread out the education funding rather than to inject a large amount of money into education in the first year of the stimulus plan.

"It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to accelerate the funding to higher education and BEP so that they have a huge blip in one year and then it falls off the cliff the next year," he said.

Overall, funding for higher education in Tennessee seems to be in worse shape than K-12, Mr. Morgan said.

"The kinds of cuts higher education has held off this year and next year will be made two years out, I think," he said. "It's going to be awful hard to keep higher ed funded at the current level."