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Opinion

Despite Cuts School Spending Still Rising


web posted April 29, 2010
OP-ED – The last school year was dominated by news of massive budgets cuts to classrooms across South Carolina. A closer look suggests the impact of cuts was often overstated, sometimes dramatically. Newly released data from the State Department of Education indicates that both funding and spending actually rose across the state's 85 public school districts.

The Department's "Finance and Operations" division published detailed records of the districts' final revenues and expenditures for the 2008-2009 financial year late last week.

All told, the 85 public school districts reported $9 billion in revenues and $9.5 billion in expenditures. Based on a year-long average enrollment of 686,611 students, the schools spent an average of $13,880 per-pupil and took in $13,182 per-pupil. The gap between revenues and spending receipts is the result of transfers between funds within the districts.

These new numbers point to a major rise in public school spending, at a time when most parents assumed budgets were shrinking. The report indicates that on average districts spent $556 more per student in 2009 than in 2008, though 34 districts saw declines.

School districts receive money from local, state, and federal governments, as well as their own issuance of bonds and transfers from other agencies. The state portion of school funding in 2009 was $3.5 billion, down from $3.7 billion the year before. Despite the cuts, 51 districts were able to increase per-pupil spending through a mix of heightened local tax collections, federal funding, transfers between government agencies, and a spike in revenue from bonds. Others tapped into massive reserve funds and shifted allocations, though transfers accounted for less than eight percent of total school revenues.

Even the cuts to state aid were smaller than anticipated. Over the course of the school year, there were four cuts to the Education Finance Act (EFA), and five cuts to the Education Investment Act (EFA). The EFA is tied to the state's General Fund, and the EIA consists of money collected through the state's sales tax. The state still provided local schools with an average of $3,753 per-pupil in 2009.

State Superintendent Jim Rex claimed in March of 2009 that cuts had reached $365 million, insisting that public schools were "at-risk of significant damage." The final report from the Department of Education indicates state aid in the form of EFA and EIA payments dropped $270 million from initial projections, or $394 per-student.

Federal funding for schools, the center of heated debate over South Carolina's acceptance of stimulus money, played a limited role. Washington supplied just 8.4 percent of districts' revenues in 2009.

Some districts now post details of their finances online but the size and complexity of these budgets remains a source of frustration for many transparency advocates. Local board members and state officials routinely exclude certain items in their budget discussions and reports. Revenue from bond issues, property sales, and government transfers are regularly omitted. So is spending on debt, interest, construction, pensions and legal services. When these numbers are extracted average school budgets appear as low as $9,800 per student, leading many parents to assume that education spending had stagnated or dropped.

"Teacher furloughs and cuts of $300 million sound heart wrenching, observed Randy Page, President of the SCRG Foundation. "But when so many school budgets are actually growing and total spending is over $13,800 per-student, there ought to be a reality check in terms where the money is really going."

Neil Mellen
South Carolinians for Responsible Government (SCRG) Foundation







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