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S.C. loses out on funds for teachers

South Carolina's public school teachers didn't get an early Christmas gift from the state's congressional delegation.

Congress adjourned this week without providing $143 million in emergency funds to save 2,600 teaching jobs in South Carolina.

The failure of the state's representatives in Washington to secure the money left S.C. Education Superintendent Jim Rex searching for answers.

"I'm very disappointed," Rex said on Thursday. "All of the members of the delegation said they were not opposed to trying to find a solution, and yet so far no solution has been found."

South Carolina was shortchanged in August when Congress passed a bill providing states $26 billion in Medicaid and public education funds.

South Carolina received its share of the Medicaid funds, but it failed to qualify for $143 million for public school teachers. Texas is the only other state to miss out on the funds.

In order to prevent states from using the federal money as substitute funding, Congress set minimum education funding levels they had to reach in order to qualify for the influx from Washington. Previous state budget cuts of $110 million in higher education funding pushed South Carolina below the funding threshold to obtain the emergency federal funds.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca Republican who along with most other GOP members of Congress voted against the original legislation in August, said the measure was flawed.

"Clearly, there were serious technical errors in the bill," said Kevin Bishop, a Graham spokesman. "These should have been corrected by the Democratic-controlled House, Senate and Obama administration before it was signed into law."

U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint also voted against the legislation.

"Senator DeMint has consistently opposed the failed federal stimulus spending and teachers' union bailouts that have not created the jobs promised and will leave states with bigger budget shortfalls," said Wesley Denton, a DeMint spokesman.

U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn vowed for months that he would produce a legislative fix to bring South Carolina the $143 million, but the Columbia Democrat could not deliver.

Clyburn said he'd persuaded House appropriators to include the special clause in several temporary funding bills for the federal government, but he claimed that the fix had stalled in the Senate.

Clyburn accused DeMint of blocking the deal, which the Greenville Republican denied.

Before the 111th Congress drew to a close, lawmakers passed a "continuing resolution" to fund the federal government at 2010 levels through March 4, 2011.

The 112th Congress will have to pass additional legislation funding the rest of the federal fiscal year through Sept. 30. With Republicans in control of the House and holding more Senate seats, it will be more difficult to get special education funding for South Carolina through Congress.

"Senator Graham has received and circulated the proposed technical fixes which would address the errors made by the Democrats in their drafting of the (original) legislation," Bishop said.

"When Congress returns in January, he will continue to explore avenues of how to possibly clean up the terrible mess the Democrats created," he said.

Rex said two years of state budget cuts have cost South Carolina 3,676 public school teachers' jobs, including 2,145 in the last year alone.

Gov.-elect Nikki Haley and the General Assembly are facing at least a $700 million shortfall in the 2011 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Rex said the $143 million in federal rescue funds would help soften the impact of additional cuts in the education budget and prevent as many as 2,600 more teachers from losing their jobs.

"The next fiscal budget is when additional teaching positions will be lost," Rex said. "Nobody knows the severity of that, but we know it will be much less if the $143 million were forthcoming. This may not avoid additional cuts, but certainly would blunt the effects of state cuts for next year."