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Shifting Prospects, Shifting Politics on School Funding?

UPDATED

These have been a bleak couple of years for local schools, which have been forced to absorb layoffs and plenty of painful spending cuts, partly as a result of deep state budget reductions.

But recently, the financial outlook in a pair of states has offered reason for cautious optimism in local districts, because of what budget analysts are saying. In a third state, meanwhile, a governor who came into office slashing school budgets is vowing to do more to protect school funding, while in South Carolina, state officials are locked in a dispute over the federal role in providing support to schools.

• In South Dakota, Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard is pledging to boost spending on schools in his $4 billion budget, which has been buoyed by rising tax collections.

Schools would receive a relatively modest funding increase of 2.3 percent, and an additional one-time investment of $12 million, according to the governor's office.

• In Montana, state officials are projecting a surplus of nearly $430 million dollars, nearly three times the amount estimated when lawmakers adjourned last spring. Gov. Brian Schweitzer and other Democrats had said that state budget estimates were too low, while GOP lawmakers were more pessimistic, and called for cuts in the state budget, according to the Associated Press.

Montana's schools have benefited from the sales of mineral rights, which have eased the budget crunch, the AP reports.

• In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who made deep cuts to school funding in his first year in office, is signaling that he wants to shift course pretty dramatically and provide more money to education. Scott's record on school issues—which also included support for a law eliminating tenure and implementing merit pay—has proved deeply unpopular among teachers. The governor himself appeared to concede his spending reductions have been unpopular among the general public, too, according to a recent story in the St. Petersburg Times.

He echoed that message in an editorial published in a number of Florida newspapers.

"[I]nvesting in education provides a return on investment we simply cannot ignore," Scott wrote. "Education pays, and we clearly must find a way to increase our investment in Florida's students."

[UPDATE: Scott released his fiscal year 2012-13 budget on Wednesday, which he says will raise education spending by $1 billion and increase the per-pupil amount by $142, to $6,372.

The governor's plan would also boost spending on district reading programs and provide an additional 3,000 students with access to voluntary pre-kindergarten, he says.

Whether the GOP-controlled legislature, which supported Scott's earlier budget cuts, will back his change of direction on funding remains to be seen. Florida Democrats offered tepid praise, voicing concerns that Scott's budget will result in cuts to social services.

"I am pleased the governor is expressing what members of the Florida House Democratic Caucus have been saying for a long time," said House Democratic leader Ron Saunders, in a statement. "Floridians value public education and want it adequately funded."]

• Different school-funding dynamics are at work in South Carolina, where state officials have also made significant cuts to education. State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais and state board members are locked in a standoff over the prospect of federal aid flowing to schools.

According to the State, Zais, a Republican elected last year, is refusing to follow the state board's demand that he report monthly on funding available from the federal government and private sources that could support schools.

Zais has been a vocal critic of federal emergency aid for schools. He refused to have South Carolina apply for recent rounds of Race to the Top funds, and he opposed having the state apply for federal Education Jobs Fund money, aid designed to help districts avoid making layoffs. (South Carolina would not have been eligible for various pools of federal aid, in part because of its failure to follow federal requirements attached to the money.) South Carolina's state board chair said the panel could ask the state's attorney general if Zais is obligated to comply with the board's request. Zais has called the board's request an "unprecedented political power grab," according to the State.

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