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GOP Govs Propose -- Surprise! -- Education Spending Increases

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RICK SCOTT GOP GOVERNORS EDUCATION FUNDING
Florida's Rick Scott (R) is one of several governors who cut education funding last year but are proposing to restore it for 2013. | getty

Call it budgetary whiplash.

Last November, a wave of Tea Party minimalism and budget-cutting fervor swept the country, ushering governors like Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Rick Snyder (R-Mich.) and Scott Walker (R-Wis.) into office.

Making good on campaign promises to "hold government accountable," and taking stock of dire deficits, they proceeded to slash, among other things, education spending. Scott scrapped $1.35 billion, Snyder cut $1 billion and Walker's two-year- budget nixed $1.6 billion.

What a difference a year makes.

Fast forward to early 2012, and these once scissor-handed governors have dulled their blades -- at least with regard to education spending. Scott's 2013 budget proposal includes a $1 billion increase to education spending. Walker has proposed funding -- gasp! -- a new reading program. Snyder will likely call for increased education spending in his Feb. 9 budget rollout.

So what happened?

While it's tempting to interpret these funding fluctuations as a shift in fiscal philosophy, most observers instead attribute the modest increases to politics. This is especially true as states take their bows in the national limelight during the GOP primary carousel or as state legislatures enter their own constituent-friendly reelection campaigns. Meanwhile, the governors themselves profess their bedrock understanding of the need for strong education. It could also be the pressure of business groups, who have recently keyed into the idea that strong public schools are necessary building blocks of a stable workforce. And, in a few cases, evidence supports the notion that, after a long drought, some states are finally beginning to see budget surpluses.

This change in some governors' approach toward education funding comes just as the nozzle on $100 billion in federal-stimulus is being switched off. That federal money helped shore up massive state-budget cuts, which left 30 states' school systems funded at lower levels this year than in 2008. As this shift requires states to be more self-reliant, state funding is indeed beginning to increase, if at a glacial pace.

And though not all governors have even informally proposed their 2013 budgets, a Center on Education Policy report released Tuesday confirms the trend for FY '12: A survey by the non-partisan think tank shows that states see a rosier future for education spending, even if increases won't necessarily be significant.

"There is a trend that more states are having increases than cuts in education," says Diane Stark Rentner, the interim director of CEP. "It seems like stuff has tipped at the state level." Of the 37 states CEP interviewed, only eight reported that they expected to cut school money this year -- as opposed to 17 last year.

"Funding for K-12 education is a highly political issue," says Eric Hanushek, a Stanford Hoover Institution senior fellow and an economist whose research on the role of money in education has bolstered the movement known as education reform. "When governors cut funding one year, they take a lot of heat. They don't want to be known as the anti-education governor."

Hanushek contends that smart cuts can be beneficial. "A number of states recognize that health-care systems and retirement systems for school personnel are out of whack," says Hanushek. "That's what Wisconsin did -- it got the governor in trouble."

Indeed, perhaps the most notorious education cutter is Walker. His biennial budget, passed last summer, cut $1.6 billion from education over two years. His union-limiting legislation aroused teacher protests that attracted national attention. Now, Walker faces a recall.

Last month, Walker could be found reading Dr. Seuss's "Oh, the Places You'll Go" to third graders at Stoddard Elementary. The engagement focused on promoting his new agenda: literacy. Walker is now asking that schools implement the recommendations of a reading-focused panel he convened: kindergarten screening, training for teachers and tougher standards. Which, naturally, will require more money.

At a later Milwaukee meeting, according to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, Walker faced legions of skeptical educators familiar with the governor’s snip-happy ways. When pressed, he uttered three little words that rarely leave his mouth: "We'll fund it."

Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's teachers' union, offered to put things in perspective. "The incongruity of him introducing this as a signature piece of his administration is disingenuous after he cut over $1.6 billion to education," she told HuffPost.

(Walker's office did not return requests for comment).

If you call Rick Scott's press office, the Florida governor’s hold soundtrack will tell you about the importance of education in science, technology, engineering and math ("STEM"). Last year, Scott cut education funding in the 2012 budget by $1.35 billion, lowering the per-pupil funding rate of a state often dinged for its low school funding. Now, his 2013 budget proposal includes $1 billion more for schools, promising to veto anything "significantly" less.

Lane Wright, Scott's press secretary, asserts that the shift is a result of listening to "people all over the state" -- and still satisfies Tea Partiers, because the overall budget would be balanced.

"Governor Scott realizes after talking to people that this is the priority," says Wright. "He also understands that if you don't have an educated workforce, you're going to have a hard time attracting employers to the state."

Scott, says Wright, has always been about jobs. "He understands that education is a fundamental tenet of making that happen," says Wright.

Which begs the question: Was education not a "fundamental tenet" during the last budget cycle?

"Florida was facing roughly a $4 billion dollar budget gap that we needed to make up for," counters Wright. "People forget how much a billion dollars is."

K.T. Caldwell, a teacher at Indian Trails Middle School and president of the Seminole County Education Association, is skeptical. "Teachers are working six hours straight without going to the bathroom," she says. "Scott's just trying to get reelected."

Scott's northern neighbor Gov. Nathan Deal (R-Georgia) also proposed restoring part of his $1 billion cuts, promising $258 million to cover population growth in the state's schools.

"Like all state programs, education has taken a big hit," says Brian Robinson, a Deal spokesperson. "We finally had an opportunity this year with 18 months of revenue increases to restore our priority spending."

In Michigan, Snyder had a different set of priorities last budget cycle, when he cut education while giving businesses a $1.8 billion tax break. Now, he's shifting gears. Snyder has hinted that when he rolls out his budget this week, he will announce an increase in education spending. He's at the very least promised "no more cuts."

"Education is something Governor Snyder feels very strongly about," says Snyder spokesperson Sara Wurfel. "He had an education reform message back in April."

That message, put in context of Snyder's cuts, befuddles Robert Johnson, a Democratic state senator who represents Detroit. "It's difficult to be out on the stump and say you want education to be accessible in every corner of the state," notes Johnson, "and then make it difficult for school districts to supply it."

Wurfel insists it's no change. "Things are turning around, better than we had hoped," she says. "We're trying to do strategic investments in key priority areas."

But Doug Pratt, a spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association, chalks it up to politics. "The number one thing voters are angry about is that Snyder slashed a billion in public education to pay for a tax break for corporate special interests," he says. "In an election year, it's not surprising at all," adding a reaction likely shared by teachers across the nation who have learned to temper their financial expectations in recent years: "It's too little, too late."

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