Federal K-12 Funding Muddies Electoral Waters

Government's Proper Role Weighed Against Benefits.

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The massive flow of federal funding into schools has created a new and unfamiliar political dynamic in state elections this fall, with many candidates voicing concerns about the government involvement while acknowledging its role in saving jobs, propping up budgets, and supporting innovations in education.

State elected officials have a long history of opposing federal programs that they fear will encroach on their authority to set school policy.

But while some conservative candidates have railed against federal stimulus funding, arguing that it will heap future obligations on states, other contenders for governor and schools superintendent back that assistance, essentially agreeing with the Obama administration’s position that it will boost employment and school quality.

A number of state candidates explain that while they might normally oppose the federal spending that has gone to states this year and last, these are not normal times.

“Given the situation, it’s a tough thing to say ‘no’ to,” John Barge, a Republican candidate for Georgia schools superintendent, said on the topic of federal aid. While Mr. Barge is concerned about “the amount of federal involvement in education,” he said it was “proper for the federal government to support the states,” including his own.

The November elections—in which 37 governors’ seats, legislative races in 46 states, and seven state superintendent spots are up for grabs—are playing out amid an unprecedented flow of federal aid to states and schools.

Last year, Congress approved the $787 billion economic-stimulus program, officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided some $100 billion in education funding to states. That pool of money included the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund, a competition which is providing 11 states and the District of Columbia with grants to craft new approaches to improving schools and create common academic assessments.

Just last month, Congress approved a $26 billion Education Jobs Fund for states, which the Obama administration predicts will save 160,000 school jobs nationwide.

In some states, candidates have taken starkly different positions on accepting stimulus funds. Alex Sink, the Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, has supported stimulus funding and pledged to work to implement the state’s $700 million Race to the Top plan.

“Without a stronger education system, Florida cannot build a more prosperous economy,” Ms. Sink said after the award was announced last month. “I am pleased that all parties involved were able to come together to win this funding.”

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Her opponent, Republican Rick Scott, has publicly opposed stimulus funding for the state. In his campaign’s economic plan, Mr. Scott, whose campaign did not respond to interview requests, pledges to “refuse temporary funding from the federal government that creates permanent spending in Florida,” though the plan does not specifically reference Race to the Top.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has repeatedly criticized the stimulus, though the state has accepted billions of dollars of that funding, including $3.2 billion in state fiscal-stabilization aid for schools.

The governor also chose not to have Texas apply for Race to the Top money, making it one of only four states not to compete. He complained about states that adopted common standards and assessments being given a competitive advantage, asserting that the process would lead to “national curriculum standards and tests.”

“We would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington,” the governor said at the time.

Budget Pressures

More recently, Mr. Perry has said his state cannot accept $830 million in recently passed federal education jobs aid because of provisions in that law specifically requiring Texas to maintain level school funding over a three-year period. The governor says only the state’s legislature can set funding levels for schools, and he’s asked the Obama administration to hold the funding until next calendar year, when state lawmakers could act.

ROY BARNES: The Democrat in the Georgia governor's race links Race to the Top, innovation.
ROY BARNES: The Democrat in the Georgia governor's race links Race to the Top, innovation.
—John Amis/AP

But Mr. Perry’s Democratic opponent in the November election, Houston Mayor Bill White, scoffs at the governor’s positions. He says the state could have submitted a Race to the Top application without pledging to adopt common standards—since that criteria only counted for one piece of the state’s score—and that Mr. Perry’s stance on federal stimulus and jobs aid hurts Texas teachers and students.

The governor is writing “another chapter in his self-promoting book about Washington,” Mr. White said in a statement. “What parents, students, and teachers need is not a political circus, but $830 million.”

In other states, federal education policies also have drawn a mixed reception.

GOP lawmakers in Utah opposed taking $101 million in federal education jobs funding—which the Obama administration estimates would save 1,800 state jobs—saying it undercuts the state’s budget authority over schools. But Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, who is campaigning against Democrat Peter Corroon, said in a statement it would be “foolish” to give up the money, despite his concerns about the federal deficit.

Political Calculus

The federal stimulus program is largely associated with Democrats, since the measure was approved by Congress with minimal Republican support. Democrats are widely expected to absorb heavy losses in this year’s congressional elections—a common occurrence for the majority party at the midterm—and they are also likely to suffer setbacks in governors’ races, according to some projections. Of 37 contests for governor this fall, 21 are listed as leaning toward or solidly favoring GOP candidates, according to Rasmussen Reports, a nonpartisan, New Jersey-based polling operation.

NATHAN DEAL: Georgia's GOP hopeful for governor now supports Race to the Top.
NATHAN DEAL: Georgia's GOP hopeful for governor now supports Race to the Top.
—John Bazemore/AP

New governors also are expected to be working with legislatures that have very different political compositions from what they do now. Democrats currently control 60 state legislative chambers, Republicans control 36, and two are evenly split. Between 15 and 20 of those chambers are likely to change party control this fall, with most of those expected to shift to Republican majorities, said Tim Storey, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, in Denver.

Victorious state candidates will likely “walk into a continuing budget crisis,” he observed.

Mr. Obama’s administration contends the federal stimulus funding saved millions of jobs across the country during the recession. The administration has also provided state-by-state estimates of the positions that will be spared through the education jobs measure: 5,700 in Georgia, for example, which will receive $322 million; and 9,200 in Florida, slated to receive $554 million, the administration argues.

Yet federal and state Democrats’ message that federal spending is saving education jobs “is getting lost to some degree” because of the sheer magnitude of the recession and the cuts it has forced to positions and programs, argued Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University, in Madison, N.J.

In some ways, the recent federal investments defy traditional partisan characterization. Race to the Top promoted a number of education concepts that have traditionally appealed to political conservatives, such as charter schools and merit pay for teachers, ideas that Mr. Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have touted publicly.

Nine of the 11 winning Race to the Top states are hosting governors’ races this fall; in addition, Vincent C. Gray won the District of Columbia’s Democratic mayoral primary this week and is expected to move into that office, given that he faces no Republican opponent in the general election. It remains to be seen how aggressively newly elected leaders will implement their predecessors’ plans.

“You get points in politics by coming up with your own positions and showing your own genius,” Mr. McGuinn said. “If the governor who put together the plan loses the election, that could affect implementation.”

Georgia’s Race to the Top plan, submitted by outgoing, term-limited Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, would create a pilot merit-pay program for teachers and expand a data system to track student academic progress, among other steps.

In interviews, Mr. Barge and his two opponents in Georgia’s superintendents’ race—Democrat Joe Martin and Libertarian Kira Griffiths Willis—all predicted that setting up a merit-pay system would be difficult. All three pledged to implement the state’s plan, though they noted that its specific policies would be set by the next governor and by state lawmakers.

Georgia’s Democratic nominee for governor, Roy Barnes, backs the state’s Race to the Top plan, saying it would drive innovation in the state’s schools. His opponent, Republican Nathan Deal, initially voiced concerns about federal intrusion in curriculum and state policy. But he now believes those fears were misplaced, and he supports Georgia’s plan, said his spokesman, Brian Robinson.

While acknowledging that Georgia’s participation “creates heartburn for some people,” who fear a federal intrusion in schools, Mr. Robinson said the program gives the state the right to shape policy according to “market principles” in teacher pay and to hold schools accountable. “Accountability is a conservative principle,” he said.

“It’s a movement toward local control,” Mr. Robinson added. “The more people find out the truth about Race to the Top ... regardless of their ideology or party affiliation, the more they support it.”

Vol. 30, Issue 04, Pages 1, 20-21

Published in Print: September 22, 2010, as Federal Aid Adds Twist to Election
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An earlier version of this story included an incorrect number of state superintendents’ races in the November election. There are seven, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers. The story also should have described the Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White as the former mayor of Houston.

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