COLUMBIA -- Education officials were scrambling to see if the state still might be eligible for $143 million in federal money to stave off teacher layoffs.
The money was coming from a jobs bill Congress approved last week, but a change in language may disqualify South Carolina because it is one of several states that didn't maintain a sufficient amount of funding for higher education, officials said.
State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex said he has talked with members of South Carolina's congressional delegation and with the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents all of the nation's state education chiefs.
"Everybody's hoping that Congress can work this out," Rex said. "The simplest fix would be to change the bill's language back to the way it was in the federal stabilization legislation. That minor technical change could save more than 2,000 teachers' jobs in South Carolina and keep our class sizes from growing even further."
Department officials hope to get clarity later this week in a conference call with federal officials, agency spokesman Jim Foster said.
Rep. Jim Clyburn's office said the South Carolina Democrat was looking into the problem as well.
Foster said Congress changed the wording and required states to maintain a minimum rate of funds for both K-12 and higher education, but in separate categories. In the past, eligibility was determined by the combined spending, he said.
Although South Carolina's spending for K-12 was increased, the money for higher education was cut enough to apparently endanger the stimulus money, Foster said.
"We're hopeful it can be changed," said Foster of the situation.
An earlier stimulus bill had allowed certain states to obtain waivers if they failed to meet budget criteria, Foster said, but new legislation doesn't seem to allow for that.
In a statement issued by his office, Gov. Mark Sanford derided the stimulus as a "teachers union bailout" and one that would force South Carolina taxpayers to dig deeper into their pocketbooks.
"Indeed, this latest example of the 'Washington knows best and decides all' approach to governing has very real strings attached and leaves states holding the bag with unrealistic and unfunded mandates," Sanford said.
Foster said the situation won't affect the current situation in state schools, because the new money had been viewed as a way to stave off layoffs in next year's budget.
Last year, South Carolina schools cut 2,200 jobs, including 1,400 teachers. This year, the Education Department has estimated as many as 3,800 additional employees have been or will be cut and as many as 2,500 of those would be teachers.