As public schools begin a new academic year, the budget outlook is gloomy. Seventy percent of school districts cut their budgets in 2011, according to the Center on Education Policy. Eighty-four percent anticipate further reductions in 2012.

It’s hard to invest more in education, but it’s not impossible. As this Center for Budget Priorities and Policy chart shows, a handful of states are actually increasing their education budgets this year:

What’s so special about Massachusetts, South Carolina and Maryland? None is a leader in overall budget increases, nor do they tend to have lower unemployment rates (Brad Plumer had more on those states in this blog a few weeks ago). Rather, each state has a slightly different driving force behind its education budget bump.

Maryland, CBPP explains in a new report, was already “embarking on a program of increased state aid for local school districts when the recession hit, and chose largely to maintain that program.”

Other states, such as Massachusetts, have turned to rely more heavily on local financing.

South Carolina’s education budget increase, however, turns out not to be much of a bump in the larger scheme of things. The state has actually slashed its education budget more than any other in the recession, as this chart shows:

South Carolina’s slight education budget increase shows the state crawling out of a big hole, rather than leading the pack in school spending.