Federal Dateline

Spending Looks Grim, But Avoiding Disaster Can Be Sweet

by Bruce Hunter

The picture for federal education funding this year and for the next five years is really grim as a result of the budgets passed by the House and Senate. Both bills use the president’s proposed cut in education of $530 million as their target for appropriations.

We saw this coming a year ago but thought maybe the situation would change with time. It didn’t. That is the regular circumstance of leaders in education. We can see worries on the horizon, and we must decide whether to fold up our tents or roll up our sleeves and make things work.

Because you are a leader in public education you know the answer to that question.

Significant Harbinger

To the surprise of many observers, President George Bush in his first term worked with House and Senate appropriators to produce record funding increases for two K-12 programs, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which was reauthorized and renamed No Child Left Behind) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. While the increases were appreciated, they also were inadequate because the reauthorization of IDEA in 1997 and the creation of NCLB resulted in massive new requirements and new costs for both state departments of education and local school districts.

As a harbinger of things to come, the smallest increases in K-12 funding of the Bush presidency came last year when concerns over the record deficits and the need to pay for increased national security and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drove domestic discretionary spending down.

To make a bad situation worse, the distribution of federal funds changed and created more losers than winners. In the 2004-05 school year, more than half of all school districts received a cut in Title I funding, but nearly every school district received an increase in IDEA funding.

This year we project that every school district that had finding for Title I reduced in 2004-05 will also receive a small Title I funding cut in the 2005-06 school year, even though Title I funding in the aggregate went up by about $500 million. Title I funds formerly were distributed to school districts through a two-part formula that sent about 90 percent of Title I funds to school districts based on their relative share of all students eligible for the school lunch program and about 10 percent to school districts with poverty rates above 15 percent.

Under NCLB, funds are distributed on the basis of a four-part formula that sends about 60 percent of the funds based on the district’s relative share of students qualifying for a subsidized lunch and 40 percent based on formulas that favor concentrations of poverty and larger school districts. AASA supported that change because schools with high concentrations of poor students clearly require more resources to mitigate the problems. Thus funds are most concentrated in large high poverty districts.

However, the mandates of NCLB fall equally on all school districts because testing and record-keeping requirements apply to all school districts and the scorekeeping system is designed to find and punish every instance of failure, which we at AASA project will include nearly all schools in all school districts in the next two years. So the costs of compliance keep rising, while funding is slowing down and is likely to drop even more in the next five years in budgets adopted by both the House and Senate.

Since new revenue sources are unlikely and economic booms are hard to predict, the deep cuts in domestic discretionary spending projected over the next five year’s federal budget are really only a threat in the near term.

Coolidge’s Advice

Educators can either seek relief on federal mandates, which would be a first but not an impossible task, or figure out how to fund the national priorities, such as Title I, IDEA, career and technical education or Impact Aid. This is possible but only by curtailing earmarked spending on specific local projects (frequently called pork barrel spending) for individual school districts. This type of appropriation has increased exponentially in the last half dozen years.

Also all the small pet programs that distribute funds to a handful of school districts, such as the national writing project, would have to be cut dramatically or be eliminated. It may be easier to eliminate the letter M from the English alphabet than to eliminate pork barrel spending or support for pet projects.

Calvin Coolidge, although having a low rating among historians as president, had a wonderful saying that keeps me going when things look grim out on the horizon. To paraphrase Coolidge, if you see 10 troubles coming down the road at you, nine will go into the ditch before they get to you.

This last year AASA generated more than 5,000 congressional contacts through our website, which fails to count phone calls, personal contacts and personal letters. Congress is poised to begin work on NCLB next year in its second session because of your badgering. I am absolutely sure that we can push Congress into either funding their programs or eliminating onerous mandates.

My experience has proven Calvin Coolidge right: Most distant worries don’t make it into reality because we take action or other events eliminate or mitigate the worries.

Bruce Hunter is AASA’s associate executive director of public policy. E-mail: bhunter@aasa.org