The nation’s governors last week identified spiraling Medicaid and other health-care spending as their top budget concern, and asked President Bush and Congress for help in keeping such costs from bleeding other state budget priorities, such as K-12 education.
Members of the National Governors Association also approved at their winter meeting here a set of recommendations on federal policy that are designed to give governors more authority over federal aid for workforce training, early-childhood education, and the transition from high school to college.
The governors’ action at the NGA meeting, Feb. 28 to March 1, followed the two-day national summit on high schools, where governors debated ways to improve the nation’s secondary schools.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, the Democrat who chairs the NGA education committee, said in an interview that governors want federal policies retooled to give states’ chief executives more authority over funding and programs.
Noting that “three major pieces of education legislation are going to be reauthorized” by the 109th Congress, she said that “we think it’s a great opportunity … to really have a conversation with Congress about not only the funding, but also the policies.”
Among the NGA’s list of positions on federal education policy, the governors urged Congress to:
• Consult with states on any expansion of federal testing in high schools, allowing for maximum state flexibility and encouraging or providing incentives for states to link high school tests with college-admission or work-readiness exams;
• Allow states to take the lead on accountability for higher education, including setting new standards for teacher-preparation programs;
• Provide sufficient funding to meet school improvement goals and allow more gubernatorial authority to use federal money as needed for such categories as workforce training and teacher quality;
• Preserve Perkins Act higher education funds and continue funding increases for Pell Grants to help defer the rising costs of college;
• Create financial incentives for states to provide industry-approved certification exams for students entering technical careers and to encourage more schools to provide Advanced Placement tests, International Baccalaureate programs, distance and online learning, and service-learning opportunities.
An Early Start
Gov. Sebelius and other governors expressed support for Head Start and other federal early-childhood programs, but suggested that federal laws should be revised to streamline such programs. Currently, 69 federal programs spread across nine departments or other agencies deal with children under age 5, she said.
“If you think that’s a federal policy that’s working, maybe we can think again,” Ms. Sebelius said in an NGA education committee meeting here. The committee is anticipating the reauthorization of the Head Start Act, scheduled to get under way in the next few months in Congress.
Former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat, told the committee, as an expert witness, of his concerns about the Head Start reauthorization.
The Bush administration is pushing for a pilot program that would send Head Start money to states to dole out instead of directly to local grantees, which is the current practice. Foes argue that such a change would be a significant step in dismantling the existing Head Start program.
The NGA supports the intent of Head Start, but governors also favor better coordination of federal, state, and local early-childhood programs. The NGA hasn’t directly tackled the issue yet of whether its members support the idea of the pilot program favored by the administration.
Federal funds are “not nearly enough,” Mr. Hunt said, adding that states must put their own plans and money in place as North Carolina has done.
“We need to make sure we don’t hurt Head Start” in the reauthorization, said Mr. Hunt. He worries that giving the Head Start money to states could cause them to rely on federal funding and lead them to yank their own state funding for early-childhood programs.
On Medicaid, governors said they have begun to develop policy proposals that should be ready in the coming weeks and that they hope will save their states money and redirect more resources and attention to education.
“We’re going to have to deal with Medicaid as a long-term structural problem,” said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, whose state recently scaled back its health-assistance program after it became too expensive.
“That is vital to things we do in education. Medicaid has become this dragon that comes to the table and eats what it wants,” Gov. Bredesen said in a brief interview.
Governors appeared to find a willing partner in U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael O. Leavitt, a former Utah governor, who addressed the NGA conference and promised the Bush administration’s help with the Medicaid dilemma.
But whether governors favored stopgap legislation in Congress or more systemic changes aimed at reducing various state health-care costs remained up in the air.
“This is the time we have to come to grips with Medicaid costs,” said Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, speaking at a news conference.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, urged the Bush administration to allow states, taxpayers, and local governments to save money on prescription drugs by allowing imported drugs from Canada. President Bush could allow Secretary Leavitt to approve some imported drugs, he said.
After a private meeting at the White House, President Bush praised the governors’ work on the education summit, but did not specifically address education in a closed-door session with governors, said Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska, a Republican.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Governors Seek Help From Federal Officials On NCLB Law, Funds