Last year, as state governments confronted huge budget shortfalls in the face of a national economic meltdown, it was clear to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that the federal stimulus package under consideration needed money set aside specifically for public education.
“I cannot imagine what the state of our schools would have been without [that] money,” she told attendees during Monday’s Congressional Awards Luncheon at NSBA’s Annual Federal Relations Network Conference.
Collins, who was presented with an award of special recognition for her efforts in passing last year’s American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, offered some insight into the “extremely difficult” negotiations on the stimulus package that sometimes ran “deep into the night.”
The weeks that went into crafting the package were well spent, she said. In hard economic times “it is absolutely critical that the federal government provide relief to states . . . to help them avoid draconian cuts to critical education programs and prevent the loss of thousands of positions.”
Although she and a colleague lobbied for even more education money, Collins said, the final stimulus package still represented a solid investment in the nation’s schoolsmore than $90 billion.
Of that, she said, she was particularly pleased that $12.2 billion was set aside for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
“I fought particularly hard for more education money for special education programs, as [IDEA] is the granddaddy of all federal mandates,” she said, earning a round of applause.
Collins said putting more money into IDEA was only right. “I personally believe it’s essential that Congress fulfill the promise that was made in the 1970s, when it first passed IDEA, and that was for the federal government to pay 40 percent” of the mandate’s cost. “Think what a difference that would make.”
Now the fight for education funding turns to the fiscal 2011 budget proposal, which looks to boost education funding by $3 billion, she said.
As they prepared to head to Capitol Hill the next day to meet their elected representatives, conference attendees were encouraged by Collins to make their opinions known. “You’re the ones on the front lines,” she said.
She should know. Over the years, she said, both her mother and younger brother had served on their local school boards.
“I know first-hand how important your service is,” she said, “and I understand very well how challenging it is, particular when you’re faced with such difficult economic times.”
Also recognized by NSBA’s Federal Relations Network for their outstanding service to public education in 2009 were Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.).
Del Stover, Senior Editor