Haley, Zais will not seek federal education money

gnsmith@thestate.comJune 28, 2011 

— Gov. Nikki Haley and State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais repeated Monday that they will not seek additional federal money for S.C. schools.

The recently elected Republican leaders emphasized their opposition after education groups said lawmakers should seek the money to save teachers' jobs and create new education programs.

The groups say the money is within reach if state and congressional leaders would agree to pursue it.

Special legislation could be introduced by the state's congressional delegation to tap the money. But that is unlikely because of divisions within that delegation over the wisdom of using one-time grants for recurring expenses.

At issue are two pots of federal money that South Carolina could pursue:

Education Jobs Fund

The first opportunity is $144 million in the Education Jobs Fund. That money is meant to tide over school districts this year and next and could help curb a growing tide of teacher layoffs.

In the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years, S.C. school districts laid off or left unfilled nearly 3,700 teaching positions, according to the S.C. Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Achievement. The number of teaching jobs lost during the state's current fiscal year, which ends Thursday, has not been tabulated. The state attempted to get the Education Jobs Fund money last year but failed when a compromise could not be worked out among South Carolina's members of Congress. South Carolina is the only state that has not received a share of the $10 billion fund, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

"It's hard to explain to teachers, especially first-year teachers, who are losing their jobs, that there is $144 million just sitting there in D.C. that we won't go after," said Molly Spearman, director of the S.C. School Association of School Administrators, which, along with the S.C. School Boards Association, wants lawmakers to go after the money.

Race to the Top

Part of $700 million in Race to the Top grant money is in the other pot. South Carolina is one of nine states eligible to compete for part of $200 million to create and improve various education programs and systems. The state also qualifies to compete for part of $500 million for preschool programs.

Both Zais and Haley, whose approval is needed to seek the federal money, reiterated Monday they will not pursue Education Jobs money.

"(Education Jobs funding) is one-time stimulus money used to pay for recurring expenses which, in Dr. Zais' opinion, is an unwise budgeting process," Jay Ragley, spokesman for the state education department.

Ragley also said the state still does not qualify for the money. Because the state failed to spend enough on higher education, it did not qualify for the federal money last year. Several attempts by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, to get around that requirement, qualifying the state for the money, were unsuccessful. Clyburn blamed inter-party political squabbling.

Members of Congress in other states that were in the same predicament, including Texas, had special legislation introduced to get the money flowing to them.

Zais and Haley also are standing firm in refusing to apply for a Race to the Top grant, a competition introduced by President Barack Obama.

"Dr. Zais took a clear position as a candidate for public office," Ragley said. "He did not support Washington's Race to the Top program because it provided one-time money for recurring expenses, which is the definition of an unfunded mandate. His position has not changed since assuming office in January."

Education groups want Zais to reconsider.

"We're over campaign rhetoric," Spearman said. "We're looking for leadership."

Paul Krohne, director of the School Boards Association, said he remains hopeful Zais will have a change of heart based on needs in the state's classrooms. Last year, the state's base spending per student was $1,617 - down nearly $1,000 from three years ago.

Zais is unfazed.

"What message is the education establishment sending to students by demanding Dr. Zais change his position regarding Race to the Top? It's acceptable to break your word?" Ragley said.

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