By Alyson Klein | Education Week
December 23, 2008 -- As President-elect Barack Obama and Congress begin laying the groundwork for a massive economic stimulus package, education groups are hoping for a major infusion of cash—beyond just construction projects—to help put financially struggling school districts on firmer fiscal footing.
Mr. Obama announced in a recent radio address that his administration would seek to direct a portion of a federal spending bill aimed at getting the economy back on track to school construction and to expanding broadband access in schools. The overall legislation could cost as much as $850 billion, according to published reports.
But, as more states warn of substantial cuts to K-12 spending, some school and state officials are lobbying lawmakers and the Obama transition team to include money for programs such as special education, teacher training, and grants to help districts educate disadvantaged students.
“The context has shifted so dramatically with this economic meltdown, but I think it also creates an opportunity for bold action, and that’s what it will take to make education a priority,” said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington lobbying coalition.
He argued that, over the long term, education is one of the best places to target federal dollars because “it actually has the strongest possibility of being able to pay back” the government, since students and workers will be better equipped to compete in the global economy.
Best Approach Debated
President-elect Obama said he would like Congress, which convenes next month, to get a stimulus package ready for his signature shortly after he takes office Jan. 20, providing an immediate jolt to the stumbling economy.
But fiscal-policy experts are split over whether aid for schools’ operating costs—such as materials and teacher salaries—will help create jobs and eventually generate revenue for states and the federal government.
Many states already face yawning deficits, and it’s possible that federal relief would simply help stave off cuts to education programs, rather than allow schools to purchase more materials, or hire additional teachers, said Nick Johnson, the director of the state fiscal project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group in Washington focused on the needs of low-income families.
Still, in tight times, even keeping major cuts at bay might help save jobs, he said.
“When states make cuts, it is very bad for the economy,” Mr. Johnson said. “They lay off workers, cancel payments to vendors and so on.”
But Chris Edwards, an economist at the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, said the projected size of the stimulus package is simply opening the door for education organizations and state policymakers to “recycle long-standing requests for aid” that may have nothing to do with stimulating economic growth. Mr. Edwards is also skeptical that increased government spending will spur a recovery.
It’s too early to say if federal relief for cash-strapped states—if any—can help states avoid or scale-back cuts to K-12 programs.
When President-elect Obama met with the majority of the nation’s governors in Philadelphia earlier this month, most expressed support for federal help, but education took a back seat to other priorities. ("Governors Make Pitch to Obama for Stimulus Money," Dec. 10, 2008.)
And in testifying before the House Appropriations Committee this month, Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat from Wisconsin, said that extra money for programs such as Medicaid might help state legislatures shift resources to education programs.
But another Democratic governor, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, said he’d like to see “some kind of block grant,” possibly geared just for schools.
Some lawmakers on the panel agreed with him. “Count two for that plan,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., said, noting that schools in her South Florida congressional district were considering hiring freezes and layoffs. “I couldn’t agree with you more.”
Special Education Relief
Education organizations are encouraged by the President-elect’s high-profile support for making school construction money and funds for expanded broadband access part of a stimulus package.
In a letter sent this month to congressional leaders, the Committee for Education Funding said that investing $20 billion over five years in school facilities could support about 50,000 jobs. If such construction took a “green,” or environmentally friendly, approach, it could save up to $20 billion in energy costs over 10 years, the organization wrote.
But education lobbyists are also hoping for money for career and technical programs, Pell Grants for college students, pre-kindergarten programs, and state data systems.
And one item makes nearly everyone’s wish list: Increasing the federal share of funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Under the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, the federal government is authorized to cover up to 40 percent of the states’ excess special education costs, based on the national average per-pupil expenditure. That 40 percent is what is considered “full funding.” But annual federal appropriations have fallen far short of that goal. In fiscal 2008, which ended Sept. 30, the federal government covered 17 percent of such costs.
In November, the National Governors Association sent a letter to Congress asking for $19 billion over the next two years to fund IDEA. And some groups, including the American Association of School Administrators, want the funding to become mandatory, meaning that the federal share of IDEA would be financed automatically by law and not subject to the annual appropriations process.
Providing more money for special education would take pressure off state coffers, help relieve property taxes, and boost districts’ bottom lines, said Mary L. Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for AASA, which is based in Arlington, Va.
“If the federal government really wanted to do something that would help everybody at the local level,” it would fully fund IDEA, she said.
If the federal government decides to provide substantial funding for IDEA and other programs in the stimulus, it’s likely that education organizations and state policymakers will keep pressure on Congress to continue with the investment even after the economic outlook has brightened.
“We will hold their feet to the fire to make sure they keep full funding,” said Randall Moody, the chief lobbyist for the National Education Association, a 3.2 million member Washington-based union.