State funding to the rescue?

For school leaders, the news from the nation’s capital regarding the federal education budget has been largely disappointing these last few years, especially when it comes to educational technology. But state budget scenarios are another story. Building on the good news that began last year, several states have announced budget surpluses that could help pay for new education programs being proposed across the country.

At least 37 governors reported in their state-of-the-state addresses that their state budgets were projected to be in balance or contain a surplus, according to “The Governors Speak: 2006,” a report from the National Governors Association (NGA) summarizing the 2006 addresses from the governors of 44 states and Puerto Rico. “Frankly, it just fits exactly with how the cycle goes,” said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, which reported at the end of last year that “state fiscal conditions rebounded notably in fiscal 2005.”

“We had a boom in the late 90s, so we could do plenty of tax cuts and program expansion,” Pattison said. “…Then, of course, we went through the really bad budget-cutting time. Now, with revenues back up, … we’re back to proposals for additional spending and tax cuts.”

The Texas state treasury has $4.3 billion more than lawmakers have budgeted to spend over the next two years, state leaders learned in early February. About $1.9 billion is earmarked for education and tax reform. The rest of it is “free money” that lawmakers can use as they see fit, said Billy Hamilton, deputy comptroller.

The surplus is the largest in Texas in several years. In contrast, lawmakers wrote the 2004-05 budget in the face of a $10 billion revenue shortfall. Current projections indicate that the surplus will grow even larger over the next two years as the result of larger-than-expected tax revenue from consumer spending and higher oil prices.

At press time, Texas lawmakers had yet to decide how to spend all the extra money. But in a state that is home to major high-tech firms such as Dell Inc. and Texas Instruments, advocates of educational technology hope school IT programs will be among the beneficiaries.

Texas’ budget surplus might be one of the largest, but it certainly isn’t the only example. States from Maine to California are reporting significant budget increases–and many are proposing school laptop programs or other new education initiatives as a result.

“It’s a lot better having extra, let me tell you,” said Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican. “My first few weeks in office, we had to find immediate savings to avoid a financial crisis. … The last two years have seen a billion dollar-plus surplus.” Romney, who is exploring a presidential run, wants to invest in education with laptop computers for 500,000 students at a cost of $54 million over two years.

In early February, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, presented a budget plan that would increase school spending by $517 million and expand social services to tens of thousands of additional children and elderly adults. Rendell’s $25.4 billion budget marks a 4-percent spending increase over 2005 figures.

Rendell has asked for a 6.4-percent increase for public schools, including more money for kindergarten and tutoring, as well as new programs to improve science classes in elementary schools and to provide more laptop computers in high schools.

His “Classrooms of the Future” initiative seeks to invest $200 million over the next four years, so that by 2009 “every public high school classroom used to teach the four core subjects will have an internet-equipped laptop computer on every student desk, as well as multimedia technology at the teacher desk,” Rendell said during his budget address. “We will invest in professional development for Pennsylvania teachers and school leaders to teach them how to use the new technology that will boost the skills and knowledge of our students,” he said. “…What I have proposed to you today is bold and far-reaching. But it is also necessary and vital for our future. And the good news is that it is totally affordable.”

Though Pennsylvania does not have a budget surplus, additional state revenues will enable lawmakers to approve a 4-percent budget increase without raising taxes, the governor’s office says.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, said he is planning to scale back proposed tuition hikes for the state university system, thanks to a budget surplus that is expected to exceed $3.2 billion. The governor also wants to give all Florida teachers a laptop computer, and he has proposed extra pay to lure math and science teachers to the state.

Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, wants to use most of his state’s extra money for education, with scholarships and raises for teachers. And Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a record $54.3 billion for K-12 education in California. That state estimates $7 billion in higher-than-expected tax revenues over the next two years.

Schwarzenegger is up for re-election in November and has promised to cut tuition for state college students and invest billions of dollars in K-12 education.

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, wants to use part of her state’s projected surplus of $570 million to offer $10,000 bonuses to teachers who agree to work in underperforming schools for three years. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and Maine Gov. John Baldacci, both Democrats, said they want to make sure every teacher earns at least $30,000 a year. Arizona’s surplus is near $1 billion, and Maine has a projected surplus of $164 million.

According to the NGA report, the most common proposals to improve education this year focus on teacher quality and teacher compensation. Most of these plans focus on increasing teacher pay, including several proposals to institute performance-based compensation systems. Also, 58 percent of governors described initiatives to improve their state’s high schools, with most focusing on improving student preparation for college.

In 2005, 35 percent of governors said their state budget was balanced or in surplus. This year, 82 percent of governors (37 of the 45 whose state-of-the-state addresses were available) said their budget was in balance or contained a surplus–and 84 percent (38 of 45) described their state’s economic conditions as good or improving. Forty percent of governors (18 of 45) discussed the need to increase teacher salaries, and 29 percent (13 of 45) addressed teacher training, including mentoring programs, a proposal to link teacher compensation to classroom-related professional development (Kentucky), and a plan to require colleges of education to incorporate newly adopted state standards into their teacher-preparation programs (Ohio).

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