A Slice of Two-Thirds

Credit: TeckPoh

Credit: TeckPoh

Following several hours of impassioned testimony from administrators, parents, and staff from school districts throughout the state, both large and small, at this week’s School Finance Network Assembly Hearing, it ended, unfortunately, on what could be charitably characterized as a flat note. Despite the hard work of disparate leaders of education groups meeting constantly for the past couple of years to come up with a thoroughly conceptualized school finance reform plan to present to the legislature, a committee composed of organizations in the School Finance Network who have often been traditionally at odds with each other in the past (for example WEAC and WASB ), came to the hearing armed with numbers vetted by both economists at the UW-Madison and the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau, including a number of suggestions for how to pay for this reform. However, the Committee on Education made it clear they were not going to take any action on this plan for the upcoming budget legislation hearings for the 2009-2011 budget. And most discouragingly there was, as far as I’m aware, no newspaper coverage of this event. I saw only one Madison tv crew present. They covered some of the personal testimony at the beginning but were not around to hear the actual presentation of the plan itself, which came late in the proceedings, too late to make it into the evening broadcast.

There are several political issues at play here, and with the funding reform process seemingly ended as soon as it was given its first oxygen to breathe, I think we may be headed towards even more dangerous waters. We will try and cover what rocky shores we may be encountering in future posts (such as the Governor’s push to repeal the QEO without other fundamental reforms). I want to draw your attention to one of them that, frankly, I missed in some of our earlier discussion on AMPS here about the use of federal stimulus money for school budgeting. In the Summary of Governor’s Budget Recommendations, Thomas Mertz pointed out his confusion with the school district’s use of their increase in their federal Title I and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funding to reduce their levies and the potential bad effects this may have on district’s budgets in subsequent years. I, along with Mr. Mertz, remain quite confused about the Governor’s and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s thinking on the added stimulus money to IDEA and Title I as a way to keep within the Fed guidlines of “supplement not supplant.” It would appear that the Governor is planning to scale back his professed desire for the state to provide 2/3’s funding for education and instead reduce it to a level between 62.0% and 63.2% in 2010-11 and the shortfall made up with increased short-term Fed dollars. As an editorial in the New York Times noted the other day:

The education portion of the federal stimulus package gives a $13 billion boost to Title I, the federal program that is meant to provide extra help to disadvantaged schoolchildren. And the Department of Education has issued new guidelines, requiring states to give a clearer accounting of how education dollars are spent. But the federal money won’t get to the students for whom it is intended unless the department bird dogs this issue.

As envisioned by Congress, Title I is supposed to serve as an additional layer of financing for high-poverty schools that already are provided with budgets comparable to other schools in the same system. In reality, states and localities have often shortchanged schools that served the poor and used federal money to make up the difference in their basic budgets.

They further added:

The states and localities will resist the reporting requirement, which could easily unmask unethical financing gaps and even evasions of federal education law. But Arne Duncan, the education secretary, needs to hold them to the rules. The new reporting requirement is absolutely essential to school reform in general and fairness for impoverished children in particular.

But in yesterday’s State Journal report showing that MMSD would be receiving $11.7 million over two years from the stimulus bill, the Governor was quoted as warning school districts against “creating “funding cliffs”: using the short-term dollars to start new programs that would have to be sustained later by other funding.” But isn’t that what he is doing in his budget, promising something and then pretending he’s actually paying for it with two funds that are meant to supplement and not supplant state funding?

The Governor is further quoted, “This money can really protect our property taxpayers, and it also can add real quality to our schools if used correctly,” Doyle said.

Indeed. We’ll wait to see what the Obama administration has to say about this old street hustle 3-cups-and-a-ball routine.

Robert Godfrey

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, AMPS, Best Practices, Budget, Equity, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, National News, School Finance

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