School Construction Funds Remain a Question
The $1.2 billion federal pot for emergency school repairs and maintenance could be in jeopardy under the Bush administration's budget plan, some school officials fear.
President Bush indicated late last month that he wants to allow states to spend the money, appropriated late last year and scheduled to be given out in July, on other priorities if they so choose. House Democrats say that could derail districts' plans to use the money for urgent repairs this year.
Mr. Bush also signaled that he doesn't want to continue federal funding for school construction. The issue has taken on prominence in recent years, largely dividing Republicans and Democrats over the proper extent of federal involvement in public education.
The $1.2 billion fund, allocated in the fiscal 2001 budget passed in December and signed by President Clinton, was designed to help districts make emergency repairs and wire schools for technology.
In the outline of his first budget proposal, released in February, Mr. Bush said he would like to give states flexibility to spend the school modernization fund for special education and technology. Currently, states must spend 75 percent of the money for school modernization, but may use 25 percent for special education or technology expenses.
For the upcoming fiscal 2002 budget, the administration proposes to "redirect funds to help states meet their most pressing needs, including special education, help for low-performing schools, and accountability reforms."
Terry Abbott, the chief of staff for Secretary of Education Rod Paige, said last week that the issue was "still under discussion." The administration is scheduled to submit a detailed budget proposal to Congress next month.
To change the purpose of the fiscal 2001 funding, Congress would have to pass separate legislation—a task many believe would be difficult and politically unwise. So far, neither the Senate nor House education or appropriations committees have made plans to consider the change.
Some school officials fear that their states may put the brakes on their plans to use the money on school construction, which has been a top priority for school districts, who have lobbied for the repair money for several years.
"This money was critical to our maintenance and prevention efforts," said Steve Allinger, the executive director of intergovernmental affairs for the New York City board of education, which already has made plans to spend its estimated $50 million allocation. "This was a bedrock of our budget."
"Some of our districts are counting on this money," said Jeff Simering, the legislative director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban districts. "This is the first time in recent memory that we've had a school infrastructure fund, and to suggest it isn't a high priority is a bit troubling."
Reps. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, are urging Mr. Bush to rethink.
The proposal "will lead to great uncertainty for states and school districts hoping to make urgently needed repairs before the next school year," Mr. Miller and Mr. Obey wrote in a March 12 letter to the president. "Now is not the time to revisit last year's difficult budget negotiations."
The two predicted that altering course now could unfairly pit two compelling needs—special education and health and safety issues—against one another.
States "need that money for school construction, but there is also a great need for special education," said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission for the States in Denver, who believes Mr. Bush's plan could cause tensions among districts and residents in some states. "It will come down to, which is the bigger emergency need?"
Meanwhile, Reps. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., and Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., have reintroduced a bill to provide federal tax credits to pay districts' interest costs on $25.2 billion of school construction bonds. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said last week at the legislative conference of the Council of the Great City Schools that he plans to push similar legislation in the Senate.
Vol. 20, Issue 28, Page 26