Last spring, then-Gov. Roy Barnes caused an uproar around the state when he produced a budget with no funds for the states groundbreaking elementary foreign language program.
Barnes said he had no intention of cutting the program, but wanted to force lawmakers to set their own priorities. The ploy worked; funding for model elementary foreign language programs at 26 schools around Georgia - including two in Columbia County - was restored.
This year, Gov. Sonny Perdue - facing a worst-ever state fiscal crisis - also failed to include money for elementary foreign language in his budget. But Perdue went beyond Barnes simple omission of the program; Georgias first-ever Republican governor also attacked it as unfair to all the schools that didnt have it.
Lawmakers, led by state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, managed to get funding for the program put back into a tightly squeezed state budget. Those 26 school systems, including Columbia Countys, issued contracts to teachers for another year and moved forward.
This past week, however, Perdue fired another shot at the program. In budget deferments - executive action that prevents funding from being released from the state treasury - Perdue put on hold more than $21 million in projects around the state. The withheld money includes $2.1 million for elementary foreign language.
South Columbia had already abandoned its claim on the grant for the coming year, discouraged by the ongoing struggle for parental and administrative support to match the state grant. But Stevens Creek Elementary has five teachers with signed contracts for the upcoming year whose jobs could now be in jeopardy.
The Columbia County school system already planned to dip into its reserve fund to make up for an expected $4 million shortfall in next years budget. Still, Superintendent Tommy Price says the reserve is big enough that the county could temporarily withstand the loss of the state grant. Richmond County has already committed to funding its program.
Its been part of their educational experience for six years, Price says. There would obviously be reasons to continue it.
Harbin is stunned to hear of the deferment. I have real concerns over the governors decision to do this, Harbin says. Deferring doesnt always kill it, but this is one that doesnt even need to be deferred. There are other things in the budget that ought to be deferred and looked at, but not a program that is successful and working.
As Columbia County studies the future of its foreign language programs in all grades, a task force recently recommended continuing the new middle-school foreign language program, and expanding foreign language instruction into all elementary schools. With the abandonment of South Columbias efforts, the continuation of Stevens Creeks foreign language study is vital if the county is to have a program from which to build that comprehensive, countywide effort.
Its good to hear Price suggest the countys willingness, at least in the short term, to overcome thedeferment. It will be even better if the governor and lawmakers can spend a few minutes to learn about the foreign language programs value and success; then, perhaps, teachers and students wont have to worry about wishy-washy state support in the future.
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