A Starving Impulse

Sam Dillon of the New York Times has been doing some good reporting on the carrot/stick financing strategies of the Dept. of Educaction in the vortex of shrunken state budgets, stimulus money about to dry up in 2010 and Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top (RttT) funding proposal.

In a piece from January 18th, Dillon quoted Nevada’s school superintendent Keith W. Rheault, who noted that Nevada educators had initially grumbled about the RttT program but quieted their criticisms once their state’s tax revenues plummeted last year.

“When you’re starving and somebody puts food in your mouth, it’s amazing what states will do,” Mr. Rheault said.

It was obvious that any opposition was not going to derail efforts by about 40 states to compete in the first part of a two-stage competition (7 will also file for second stage applications later). This, despite the fact that many of those states had to perform last-minute legislative changes to make their proposals more in line with Dept. of Education guidelines. A big effort, for example, was made in many states to accomodate the mandate that raised the number of chartered schools or expanded the pool of students who are eligible to attend them. As well, both California and Wisconsin repealed their laws that banned the linking of student achievement data to teachers; one day, in Wisconsin’s case, after Mr. Obama’s visit to Madison.

But in their efforts to jockey for desperately needed cash, ostensibly to become a leader in education “reform,” critics have suggested that the various state’s inabilities to pay current bills should make everyone skeptical of their capacity to take on any such new initiatives. As a report noted , in the case of Illinois, if the state were to succeed in receiving RttT funding, “it might not have the ability to finance the long-term costs of any new programs once the federal money has been spent.”

“Not too long ago,” Ms. Slowik said, “everyone was encouraged to get early-childhood programs going,  but then the funding wasn’t there.”

“Then you come along and have Race to The Top, and say you’re going to give your all and put extra things on,” she added. “There’s a feeling in the education community that these are expectations some know they can’t meet.”

With Illinois, for example, already coping with $1 billion in arrears to schools, and having already used $1 billion in federal stimulus money to plug a major hole in the state’s education budget, this represents a precarious tightrope to be walking on indeed.

Some educators are skeptical that the state can meet even its current obligations for education financing, let alone support new Race to the Top initiatives.

“Not in the current financial situation — absolutely not,” said Kenneth Cull, superintendent of District 69 in Skokie and Morton Grove. “They put too much borrowing and Band-Aids on basic education. They can’t do that forever. That’s why there is really a crisis right upon us.”

Sam Dillon’s piece today explored the “funding cliff” faced by many of the nation’s schools as they begin to use up the  $100 billion that Congress included in the stimulus law last year to help schools cushion the impact of the recession.

New studies show that many states will spend all or nearly all that is left between now and the end of this school term.

With state and local tax revenues still in decline, the end of the federal money will leave big holes in education budgets from Massachusetts and Florida to California and Washington, experts said.

“States are going to face a huge problem because they’ll have to find some way to replace these billions, either with cuts to their K-12 systems or by finding alternative revenues,” said Bruce Baker, an education professor at Rutgers University.

The stimulus program “was the largest one-time infusion of federal education dollars to states and districts in the nation’s history.”

While states were warned by Sec. Duncan and others to not spend the money in ways that could lead to damaging budget holes once the federal money ended, most took to heart the other message, to stimulate the economy by saving, or creating, some 250,000 education jobs. In short, many states used the balance of their money for 2009-10 school year leaving little or no money available for 2010-11. Wisconsin was one of 20 states that said when applying for their stabilization funds that they would spend the entirety of the endowment through the 2008-10 school years. Many states ended up spending a considerable amount of their Title 1 funds to save jobs that previously would have been paid through state and local funding that were about to be dissolved due to cuts in that funding.

Yet another train wreck hurtling down the tracks for education. Who is left to turn to for answers of how the bleeding of public education will be staunched?

Robert Godfrey

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, AMPS, Arne Duncan, Budget, finance, Gimme Some Truth, School Finance, We Are Not Alone

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