olumbia Countys fledgling elementary foreign language program has had a rough year.
Part of a state pilot plan that never grew, the program faced possible extinction this year from elementary school time changes and threatened state budget cuts.
The program got a temporary reprieve when state School Superintendent Linda Schenko visited her home county and promised an infusion of funds - some for Stevens Creek Elementary (where my wife is principal), and some for South Columbia Elementary - to help keep the state-approved programs afloat.
But during the debate over curriculum revisions, which added to the challenge of fitting once-a-day foreign language instruction into the elementary school day, the schools took another hit: Gov. Roy Barnes delivered his 2003 state budget, and money for the program was conspicuously absent.
Even the strongest supporters of elementary foreign language - including me, long predating my wifes association with the program, thank you very much - have known it would be tough to maintain the program without state support. The county doesnt pay for the program; any local money is creatively shifted from existing teaching positions and augmented by parent support. But because half comes from the state, keeping a whole program without that money would be tough.
State Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, represents the district in which the two schools are located. He got the message that those parents want to not only keep but strengthen foreign language instruction in elementary school.
When Harbin pushed to add the funding - less than $3 million statewide in a $15 billion budget - he found plenty of allies. Two dozen or so school systems with foreign language programs raised Cain with their own lawmakers, and the money made it back into the budget.
Parents were pleased. But there still was a potential problem: Barnes has the authority to deliver a line-item veto to all items in the state budget. Barnes had cut the program once; would he do it again?
The answer, straight from the horses mouth: No.
I am going to sign the budget with that money in there, Barnes told me at a recent visit to Augusta. With time for only one quick question, that was the one he apparently hadnt answered anywhere else in the state. Until he answered it, foreign language supporters - and supportive lawmakers - had been crossing their fingers.
he good news is not an end, but just the beginning. School Superintendent Tom-my Price has promised a top-to-bottom review of the countys foreign-language instruction. Its especially important as the school system begins to offer foreign language for high-school credit in middle schools.
What will such a study find? If its an honest, no-holds-barred, no-hidden-agendas review, it would find that adding foreign language in all the countys elementary schools would be an academic plus, but that it would be expensive.
Just how expensive? One worst-case scenario is $3.5 million a year. Thats a lot of money, especially when the system is starting a complete middle school foreign language program for less than $300,000 next year.
But thats in a school system whose budget from local, state and federal sources next year will be about $117 million - a school system with a budget reserve of $26 million.
hats right - a reserve of $26 million. Thats almost as much as county taxpayers pay in a single year to operate the school system, almost as much as taxpayers pay annually to operate the entire county government.
And its enough money to operate a modest elementary foreign language program for, oh, 10 years or so - without having to hope for a handout from the governor.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barrypaschal@ yahoo.com, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
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