Opinion: Education $$$ cut again again despite record unemployment
By SARAH BETH GEHL
Recovery Act funds alone could not shore up Georgia’s education budgets. Lawmakers cut between 13 and 15 percent from K-12, University System and Georgia’s award-winning Technical College System budgets for the upcoming fiscal year compared to 2009, before these recessionary cuts began.
Thousands of Georgians currently employed by the state education systems will join the ranks of Georgia’s record unemployment numbers. These include not only teachers, but nurses, cafeteria supervisors, bus drivers and custodians.
The State Board of Education just eliminated class size limits for the upcoming school year to allow districts to manage state cuts. Additional consequences will be more adjunct faculty at colleges and universities, salary cuts, furloughs and reduced supportive services such as tutoring, advising and professional development, as well as more drastic measures for some institutions.
A few K-12 school systems have already moved to a four-day school week or shortened the school calendar from 180 days to 160 days.
These cuts affect students, faculty and staff, but also local economies across the state. According to the state Department of Labor, K-12 systems are one of the 10 largest employers in every county in Georgia, and the largest in 96 counties.
In addition, 27 counties have a public post-secondary system among their top 10 employers. As an economist from George Mason University put it recently, “The macroeconomic worry is that widespread cutbacks by states and localities will create a drag on the economy. … It is folly not to recognize the impact on the broader economic recovery.”
The intent of federal Recovery Act funds was to give state lawmakers time to address their revenue declines from the Great Recession. Although Georgia’s budget deficit has been in the 10 worst in the nation, lawmakers chose to rely heavily on cutting state services; Georgia lawmakers did not take significant steps to shore up the state’s revenue system for education.
Recovery Act funds for education run out in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, causing bigger holes in school funding even as Georgia’s population of school-age children increases, more displaced workers seek job training, and more young people seek post-secondary education in order to enter the workforce. The revenue problem won’t end there, though, as state economists project weak revenues for several years to come, predicting the state will not regain FY 2007 level of revenues until FY 2014. This could mean more cuts in the coming years; without new revenue sources, K-12 and post-secondary education (which comprise more than 50 percent of state spending) likely will continue to face cuts.
Given these prolonged revenue problems, Georgia has four options for future education budgets. One option that gives states another year of time to solve their financial problems is for Congress to pass amendments to the war/disaster supplemental bill to add $23 billion in emergency education funding — effectively an extension of the Recovery Act’s state fiscal stabilization fund. These funds would go to state governments and help prevent education layoffs in Georgia and across the nation.
The other three options are: 1) increasing targeted state taxes such as the cigarette tax and repealing some tax exemptions; 2) shifting the costs to local governments and students; and 3) cutting education programs.
All of these options have policy implications that demand serious discussion. Relying on additional cuts to education, for example, raises questions about equity. Will some communities be able to offset the cuts with local resources, while communities with limited means cannot?
Continuing to vilify revenue measures while giving budget cuts a free pass is hurting our economy. We are faced with a limited number of budget choices going forward, none of which are ideal. A balanced approach to the fiscal crisis, one that includes raising state revenues responsibly and limiting additional cuts to services, will put Georgia in a better position to compete and prosper economically in the 21st century.
Sarah Beth Gehl is deputy director of the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. Her report, Highlights of the FY 2011 Education Budgets and the Four Options for Future Budgets, is available to download freely at www.GPBI.org. The Georgia Budget & Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan nonprofit that analyzes budget and tax policies to inspire responsible decision-making.