For the fist time in nearly four decades, the Idaho board of education will control all K-12 funding that comes to the state from the federal government, following a controversial measure passed by the legislature.
The measure, which does not require the signature of Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, rescinds a 37-year-old state board rule granting authority over federal education aid to the state department of education, currently headed by Democrat Marilyn Howard, the elected state superintendent.
Supporters of the new policy, which went into effect immediately, say it will increase financial accountability over millions of dollars in federal aid. Critics, however, portray the measure as a politically motivated power grab. They point out that Ms. Howard is the only person on the eight-member state education board who was not appointed by Gov. Kempthorne, a Republican.
The measure, which technically is considered a binding resolution, passed the Republican-controlled Senate by a vote of 23-12 on March 7 and was adopted by the Republican-controlled House by a unanimous voice vote on March 17.
Idaho’s resolution simply reaffirms the state board’s ultimate responsibility for all federal and state funds, said David Griffin, the director of governmental and public affairs for the National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Alexandria, Va.
Nonetheless, state boards generally defer the management of state and federal money to their departments of education and state schools chiefs, he added, because the boards aren’t interested in micromanagement.
And neither is the Idaho state board, said Randy Thompson, the board’s academic officer. “What we are talking about is oversight and accountability,” he explained. “We would see little or no difference [under the new policy] in the hiring of employees and the responsibility of the [state education department] in implementing the programs.”
In lobbying for the change, supporters argued that the legislation was necessary to give the state board more say over federal money this year because the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 provides more flexibility in how those dollars can be used.
The federal law gives the board “the ability to move money here and there,” Mr. Thompson said.
Idaho legislators have already talked about decreasing the state’s $4 million contribution to a standards-implementation program by $2 million, and adding $2 million to the program from federal aid.
But that replacement of funds, which has not been approved, is called “supplanting,” and is not allowed under federal guidelines, said Allison Westfall, a spokeswoman for the state education department.
According to Ms. Westfall, the vast majority of federal aid is earmarked for specific programs and cannot be reallocated.
Mr. Thompson countered that if the state were to decide to add federal money to the assessment program to pay for initiatives such as crafting additional tests or putting assessments online, the federal aid would “supplement” state money, a move that is allowed under federal guidelines.
“Flexibility is one of the four cornerstones” of the No Child Left Behind Act, said Mr. Thompson. “We are not asking for anything that has not been advertised by the Bush administration.”
But critics of the new Idaho measure argue that it goes beyond flexibility and amounts to an exercise in power politics.
State Superintendent Howard was the only Democrat to win a statewide election last fall, they note.
“It’s political maneuvering to decide who controls K-12 education,” said Kathy Phelan, the president of the Idaho Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association.
And Jade Riley, the executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, maintained that “it’s revenge against Dr. Howard” for being a Democrat in a strongly Republican state.
For her part, Ms. Howard is striking a softer tone, saying that the motivation for the move is hard to know.
“In reality, it has passed, so we are going to need to figure out what needs to be redefined in order for us to operate,” the schools chief said.
Perhaps the move will be educational as well: Ms. Howard hopes the legislature’s action will give the public the opportunity to see how well, in her view, the state department of education has managed federal money for the past 37 years.