Education Funding

School Fiscal Concerns Haunt Electoral Landscape

By Alyson Klein & Sean Cavanagh — October 26, 2010 3 min read
Roy Barnes, the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, departs on a campaign tour via school bus in Marietta. The former governor is squaring off against former GOP congressman Nathan Deal and Libertarian John Monds.

Money for schools—how to spend it, or make do without it—has emerged as a major issue in federal and state elections this fall, with voters going to the polls Nov. 2 in contests that could bring new party majorities to Congress and to many state capitals.

State governments have seen a major infusion of federal dollars in recent years, most notably through some $100 billion in education-related funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in 2009 and in this year’s Education Jobs Fund, which provided $10 billion to save school employees’ positions.

That flow of federal cash includes the Race to the Top competition, which awarded $4 billion in grants to 11 states and the District of Columbia and prompted many states to adopt laws and policies on charter schools, data systems, and teacher evaluation, among other areas.

But such spending has also drawn opposition from conservative state candidates who describe it both as wasteful and as a federal encroachment into state and local authority over public education. And lawmakers in Congress are also wondering what impact rising national concern over federal spending will have on the government’s financial support for states and local school districts. A number of GOP contenders, in particular, are running on a platform of increased state and local control in K-12 schools.

Policy, Finances Dominate Debate

School funding and the federal footprint in state and local K-12 policy have emerged as major themes in this year’s tumultuous midterm campaigns.

Across the country, those vying for governorships, seats in Congress, and the helms of state education agencies are being forced to confront such issues amid continued fiscal anxiety and a heated national debate over the proper role of government.

At the same time, voters going to the polls Nov. 2 will face a variety of state ballot measures with far-ranging implications for education policy and finance.

For a look at education-related issues in this year’s elections and at individual contests to watch on election night see our special coverage of Election 2010.

Such views “feed into the broader theme of coercive government mandates” raised by many Republican candidates, who are attacking Democrats for passing the stimulus and recent health-care legislation, said Patrick McGuinn, a professor of political science and education at Drew University, in Madison, N.J.

GOP candidates are “making this broader point that government is just becoming more intrusive” through policies like Race to the Top, with President Barack Obama “telling states what to do,” Mr. McGuinn said.

Many analysts expect next week’s election will produce a significantly increased Republican presence in Congress, with the possibility that one or both chambers could flip to GOP control. Either outcome could have major implications for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which has been pending since 2007.

While GOP lawmakers and the administration often see eye-to-eye on performance pay and charter schools, they could clash on school choice, tutoring services, and an Obama administration proposal to tie some federal formula grants to states’ adoption of college- and career-ready standards.

A GOP congressional victory could also complicate the administration’s task of extending its signature K-12 initiatives—including Race to the Top and the $650 million Investing in Innovation program, which rewards promising practices for districts and nonprofit groups.

Investment-Worthy?

The dire condition of state budgets has also emerged as a major education issue in many state-level campaigns for governor and state schools superintendent.

At least 46 states faced shortfalls when adopting budgets for fiscal 2011, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit Washington research group. Elected officials have traditionally sought to guard schools against the budget axe, but this year states and schools report having eliminated programs and jobs. New governors and schools chiefs will come into office amid continued bleak financial conditions, many school-finance experts say.

The economic climate has made it difficult for gubernatorial candidates to propose ambitious new education policies, said Dane Linn, the director of the education division at the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices. Candidates are re-examining whether existing programs “are worthy of the investment,” he said.

Nonetheless, many state candidates have supported efforts in early-childhood education, college access and completion, and evaluating and paying teachers differently, he said.

“Governors understand you can’t attract the jobs unless you have a qualified workforce,” said Mr. Linn, and school and college programs are a part of that.

A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2010 edition of Education Week as Fiscal Woes Haunt Races

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