We’re grateful that the state Legislature has decided to focus on education this session. Unfortunately, much of the burden of paying for new programs is likely to fall on the shoulders of local governments.
The state Senate has embraced two ambitious programs this year aimed at improving education prospects for the state’s youngest students. One of the programs, a reading initiative that was part of Gov. Nikki Haley’s education reform proposal, would provide reading coaches for all the state’s elementary schools, establish summer reading camps for at-risk students and have students repeat the third grade if they have not become proficient in reading by then.
Some Senate Democrats complained that if students were to be in jeopardy of repeating the third grade, they ought to have more early training. As a compromise, the Senate Finance Committee agreed to a plan to use $24.4 million to expand full-day 4-year-old kindergarten to 14 more school districts.
The House budget contains no expansion of 4K but does maintain the state-paid program for at-risk 4-year-olds in 51 districts. Like the Senate plan, the House package also puts nearly $30 million toward the reading initiative.
We agree that the expansion of 4K programs should be a priority, especially in districts with high numbers of low-income families. But to help pay for it, the Senate Finance Committee elected to cut $15.8 million from the $30 million in additional money that the House had earmarked for local governments.
Some of that money also would be used to add about $25 million more for higher education, including about $10 million that is contingent on higher than expected lottery profits.
Again, the emphasis on education – including higher education – is welcome. But while those such as Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, boast that “education has got to be at the forefront of our budgetary process,” it won’t be the Legislature but rather local governments that are likely to be forced to raise taxes.
The money cut from local governments could be restored if the Bureau of Economic Advisors projects the state will collect more revenue than currently expected. Or the money could be put back during budget debate in the full Senate.
But local governments have been getting the short end of the stick for some time. State law requires the state to pay 4.5 percent of its general fund revenue collections to local governments, but that hasn’t happened since the recession began. This year, local governments are scheduled to receive $287.5 million, but even if the cut is restored, local governments would get only about $213 million.
We think the emphasis on education is necessary, and we commend Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, who, as chairman of the K-12 subcommittee, has played a key role in advancing these programs. But we also believe that lawmakers are practicing sleight of hand when they boast of supporting education while making local governments pay for their plan.
Why can’t they raise taxes, if necessary, rather than forcing local governments to do so?