- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Parents and teachers in a state with one of the nation’s worst graduation rates are predicting their governor’s vow to reject federal cash for schools will cost hundreds of teaching jobs, crowd classrooms and hurt poor children.

Republican Gov. Mark Sanford faces a Friday deadline to decide whether he will refuse $700 million in federal stimulus cash, primarily for education over two years, which he says would be better spent paying down debt. Late Thursday, his spokesman said the governor would request other portions of the package, keeping the state eligible to claim that $700 million past the week’s deadline. But his position on the smaller portion was unchanged.

Educators say the money is desperately needed.

“I understand the issue of trying to pay down debt. But it’s akin to trying to pay off your mortgage while your kids are starving,” said Frank Morgan, superintendent of schools in rural Kershaw County, which educates roughly 13,000 children.

Sanford says legislators can write an adequate budget without the money and dismisses a growing chorus of fellow Republicans, editorial writers, former supporters and protesting teachers as victims of political scare tactics.

“In fairness to the teachers, I would be frightened, too,” the governor said a day after hundreds of educators rallied outside the Statehouse chanting “Pink slip Sanford.”

Detractors counter that Sanford is trying to raise his national profile for a 2012 presidential bid and push an impractical libertarian philosophy that includes using taxpayer money to pay for private schools. He disputes that.

At issue is a portion of the $2.8 billion in stimulus cash intended for this recession-battered state, which had the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate in February.

“What kind of message do we send to the rest of nation, not to mention to our own kids, if South Carolina becomes the only state to refuse funds aimed at helping public schools?” state schools chief Jim Rex said Thursday.

The dispute over stimulus money has underscored a fracture between Sanford, who is barred by law from seeking a third term, and the Republicans who control the Legislature and want to take the money.

The governor on Thursday said he believes lawmakers have kept other stimulus money he’s already accepted out of their spending plans to make the consequences of his refusing the Washington cash seem even more dire.

But state education officials said that the reality is 5,200 school employees, including 2,700 teachers, will lose their jobs without the stimulus money. There are about 50,000 teachers statewide.

Even with the money, Rex said, districts will still need to eliminate 1,600 jobs.

Ted Zee, a father from Lexington, brought his 10-year-old daughter to a rally at the Statehouse this week to protest Sanford’s decision.

“I don’t want her school to have 35 kids in a class,” Zee said. “You can’t educate 35 kids at a time.”

South Carolina’s on-time graduation rate ranks among the nation’s lowest. Officials say it’s already tough to improve in a state with an ever-growing poverty problem. Nearly a quarter of schools statewide are in extreme poverty, with 90 percent or more of their students considered poor. In another one-third of schools, poor students make up between 70 percent and 90 percent of the population.

Meanwhile, the state is awaiting a state Supreme Court ruling on whether South Carolina must do more to prepare its poor children for school.

District officials said high schools won’t be able to offer as many classes, and those with low enrollment, such as honor classes, could be among the first to go.

Chapin High sophomore Caroline Simmel, 15, said she’s afraid she won’t be able to take Advanced Placement courses that would boost her resume.

“When I’m applying to college, it won’t look good,” she said.

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