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What Will States Do When the Federal Tap Slows Down?

By Alyson Klein — August 20, 2010 2 min read
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States are more dependent on the federal government for help in funding education than they have been in decades, education finance guru Michael Griffith told a crowd that mostly consisted of state policymakers at a forum at the Education Commission of the States conference in Portland, Ore. Federal spending on K-12 used to be around 8 or 9 percent, he said. Now it’s about 19 percent.

“When you’re talking about driving policy, it’s the golden rule, he who has the gold makes the rules,” Griffith said.

And even a tiny bit of federal funding can make a big difference. For instance, the Investing in Innovation Fund and Race to the Top funding make up less than 3 percent of spending on education. But that funding, part of the federal economic-stimulus program, has driven a whole lot of policy changes, he said.

Griffith said that the $10 billion edujobs measure, just passed this month, likely saved about 150,000 educator jobs. Without those funds, states might have lost 7 to 10 percent of their teacher workforce.

But it’s tough to say whether the feds will come through with big new money for education again any time soon. It certainly doesn’t look likely. The spending climate has shifted, and increased investment may not be politically sustainable. Case in point: Lawmakers went through far more drama trying to pass the $10 billion education jobs law than they did in passing the $100 billion in education money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“The idea behind the federal stimulus spending is that the economy is supposed to come back,” said Larry Picus, a professor at the University of Southern California, who also presented at ECS.

But the folks at the ECS forum had some suggestions for states and districts looking to stretch their dollars. For instance, Picus said he helped the Beaverton, Ore., school district implement school improvement measures without significantly increasing costs, in part by moving more staff members who had had other responsibilities back into the classroom, and offering fewer, but more intensive, courses at the high school level.

And Griffith suggested that states and districts consider other steps to get more bang for their buck, such as combining special education services and pooling purchasing power.

Some states already encourage districts to make joint procurement decisions on a voluntary basis, but that doesn’t always work, Griffith said. He joked that one school official will prefer a different brand of toilet paper than another “and the whole thing falls apart.”

Some state lawmakers had a possible solution, though: “I think I’m going to start mandating” joint purchasing decisions, said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, who chairs the senate education committee in Texas.