Special Report

Stimulus Plan May Boost Governors’ Clout

By David J. Hoff — February 09, 2009 6 min read
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Along with an infusion of money for schools, the economic-stimulus package working its way through Congress would give governors unprecedented control over how federal K-12 dollars are spent, adding to a long-standing debate over who should control federal education aid.

Congress historically has given state education officials—chief state school officers or state boards of education—authority to allocate such money using tightly controlled federal formulas.

But governors have long argued that they have the constitutional authority to ensure that their states properly oversee public education, and so should have a significant say in how federal education aid is spent. The stimulus legislation—which the Senate was still amending last week—would give them that power, if only temporarily.

“Governors play a strong role in education,” said David C. Quam, the director of federal relations for the National Governors Association. “It makes sense they as the chief executive officer have some say” over how the money is spent.

Education advocates acknowledge that governors should probably have authority over how to spend money intended to stimulate the economy, much of which is aimed at education.

But even if governors receive control over much of the short-term funding in a stimulus package, school groups want to ensure that state education officials retain control over federal education money in the future.

“You have a strong governance system in most states,” said Brenda L. Welburn, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Alexandria, Va. “There’s an infrastructure there that’s been working on these issues for a long time.”

By contrast, Ms. Welburn said, governors often serve for a limited tenure and are more likely to want to back their own initiatives over those that have been in place and need to be sustained.

A final legislative package remained in flux as of press time last week, with moderate lawmakers on both sides of the Senate aisle angling to make significant cuts to the proposed education funding increases in hopes of trimming the overall plan enough to win passage.

Even so, the proposals that remained on the floor indicate an appetite for a big hike in education funding for states and districts.

The bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last month would include $79 billion to help offset state budget cuts, $39 billion of which would be aimed at general aid for education. That money, which governors would have considerable influence in allocating, would be spread out over fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010.

But other portions of the legislation giving money to the Title I program for disadvantaged students and to special education would be distributed under existing federal formulas.

Given the emergency circumstances of a severe recession that the stimulus package is meant to address, education advocates say governors probably are best positioned to handle the money. But, in general, those advocates say, governors are less likely to dedicate money to low-income students and children with disabilities—the populations of students that most federal K-12 aid is intended to help.

“The federal government is involved in public education for a reason, and that is to help children in poverty, and it should have authority over how to do that,” said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, an Arlington, Va.-based group.

Long-Running Debate

Governors and state education officials have been jousting over control of federal aid for years.

In 1993, they fought over who would control the $400 million from the Clinton administration’s school reform plan, called the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

Then in 2001, the Senate held an extended debate over whether to give governors veto power over the state education agencies’ plans for complying with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was overhauled that year as the No Child Left Behind Act.

In both instances, Congress maintained the education bureaucracy’s control over planning how to use federal funds at the state level and distributing the money to schools based on federal formulas.

Because a major purpose of the stimulus legislation is to help states manage what is being called the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the package was designed to give governors a role in allocating money for K-12 education and other activities.

In recent speeches, governors have said they plan to use stimulus money from Washington to help make sure school funding isn’t cut.

In the budget proposal that Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland released last week, the Democrat assumes the state will receive $3.4 billion in additional federal money under the legislation. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, also a Democrat, has delayed the release of his budget proposal until the federal stimulus measure is final.

The stimulus package may be a sign that gubernatorial influence over how states spend aid under federal education programs will soon be on the rise.

“It’s part of a long-term trend of governors’ being more assertive on education,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and a former education aide to House Democrats.

The experience with the stimulus money may give governors a precedent to cite when federal education programs are reauthorized in the future, another former congressional aide said.

“It certainly is softening the ground for them,” said Charles Barone, an independent consultant based in Ventnor, N.J., and a former aide to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., now the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Spending Money

Under the House and Senate stimulus bills, a large portion of the education money would flow through the governors’ offices. In 26 states, the money would need to go through the appropriations process in state legislatures.

Though the numbers may ultimately be cut back significantly, both chambers’ versions of the plan would create a two-year, $79 billion “state fiscal stabilization fund,” with at least $39 billion reserved to help states protect K-12 education from budget cuts.

Separately, proposed increases for special education and for the nclb law’s Title I, which serves disadvantaged students, also were being targeted for cutbacks as senators worked to craft a final bill. But as originally written, the versions would distribute an extra $13 billion in Title I funds and $13 billion in special education money through the state education agencies, using the formulas based on students who qualify for services.

Both the House and the Senate bills would require states to use their portions of the stabilization fund to ensure all districts received at least as much money as in fiscal 2008. The Senate bill would require any state, after doing so, to comply with an existing court order or legal settlement designed to equalize K-12 funding.

Once states met those goals, they could allocate money for higher education or distribute additional money to school districts using the formula for the Title I program.

“That is exactly my ideal for what should happen with this money,” said Michael A. Rebell, the director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, a project based at Teachers College, Columbia University, that advocates providing equal resources for all children. “The worst thing would be for this money to be appropriated for education and then, with a sleight of hand, getting it sloughed off to other things.”

Even with such protections in the bills that could happen, said Mr. Barone. “There are enough trapdoors in the language right now ... that it would be easy for them to flush the money around,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Stimulus Plan May Boost Governors’ Clout


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