Republicans, Democrats at odds in budgeting for public education

Associated PressMarch 11, 2014 

— Republicans say k-12 public schools are a big winner in the budget plan being debated on the House floor, but Democrats criticized it Tuesday as still not meeting the state’s obligation to education.

The $7 billion spending plan for state taxes adds more than $180 million to k-12 education in the fiscal year starting July 1, as well as $12 million toward covering district employees’ rising health insurance premiums.

But Rep. James Smith said that’s still far from where the funding should be.

He proposed increasing the “base student cost” to $2,742 per student under a formula, established by a 1977 state law, that’s adjusted annually for inflation. The House proposal provides $622 less per student through that key funding mechanism.

Smith, D-Columbia, recognized his proposal was doomed. Even he disagreed with where his amendment found the money — from employees’ pay, health insurance and capital reserves. But he said he wanted to point out the shortfall.

“We continue to ignore our own standard,” he said. “We could meet this obligation if we work together to do it.”

His amendment was killed on a voice vote.

Rep. Kenny Bingham said it’s unrealistic to expect the Legislature to keep up with annual adjustments on a 1977 funding formula.

“He gets to make a point. I have to worry about funding,” said Bingham, R-Cayce, whose Ways and Means Subcommittee writes the k-12 budget. “We don’t have the money.”

Legislators have long argued for a complete revamping of the state’s decades-old funding formulas but have been unable to agree on how. Another key funding mechanism stems from a 1984 law.

Although the formulas remain, the House did adopt Gov. Nikki Haley’s budget recommendations intended to simplify them and provide more to certain students. That includes spending 20 percent more on children who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals, to target funding to the neediest schools, and 20 percent more on children whose primary language isn’t English.

The weighting changes mean roughly $100 million more will be spent on children who live in poverty. Other additions in the spending plan include $30 million to hire additional reading coaches in elementary schools and $29 million to improve Internet and wireless capabilities in schools.

Democrats have been pushing to add a poverty weighting for years, but Republicans who control the Legislature had balked at the idea.

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