Leading Source

Increasing numbers saying no thanks to federal funds and their mandates

P1010709_009_mI’ve always wondered if a local school board would be better off rejecting all federal money—and, finally relieved of untold mandates, it could reallocate its local and state funds more efficiently . . . to the point that it was actually better off without the lost funds.

This old idea came to mind again after reading that South Carolina Education Superintendent Mick Zais had declared that his state wouldn’t compete for the latest round of Race to the Top funds.

His reasoning: Accepting the money was penny-wise and pound-foolish.

“In exchange for these dollars,” he wrote in a newspaper editorial, “‘winning’ states dance to Washington’s tune on education. When the music stops and the money is exhausted, states will be left on the dance floor and paying for their rides home. This is an all-too-familiar occurrence with federal programs.”

One specific complaint by Zais was that too much of the federal dollars would be diverted away from teacher pay, new school buses, up-to-date computers, or dozens of other purposes that actually would benefit local students.

“Rather,” he complained, “it would have paid for new employees at the state Department of Education and in district offices, contracts with out-of-state education consultants, rented office space, travel expenses and even $96,000 in box lunches.”

What’s interesting is that Zais isn’t alone in his rejection of federal policymakers and their incessant need to micromanage educators actually working with children.

Last fall, a Georgia school system rejected $1.5 million in RTTT funds because federal rules required half the money be spent on merit pay—with restrictions that pretty much tied the hands of local officials in how they compensated teachers.

I haven’t checked if the lure of money led to a change of heart later in the year. But I’ve seen dozens of newspaper headlines recently about other school districts—and a number of states—that are walking away from RTT funds because too many strings attached.

In fact, the audacity of federal policymakers in tying money to their pet projects led Wyoming State Schools Superintendent Cindy Hill earlier this year to suggest her state reject all federal funds—and make a go of supporting public education on its own. It hasn’t happened, but several legislators proposed a study to determine if the idea was feasible.

Of course, as much as some in Wyoming would like to cut their purse strings with Washington, D.C., it isn’t so easy—particularly where schools serve high-poverty communities. As the online news blog, Think Progress, reported, Wyoming’s Laramie County School District receives only 6 percent of its money from federal funds. But the schools in nearby Fremont County, by contrast, gets nearly 40 percent of their funding from the federal.

It’s not clear that there’s any relief in the works. School boards have complained for years about the growing list of mandates—and federal policymakers nod their heads in sympathy and then turn right around and tighten the handcuffs on local officials.

Of course, it would be shocking, wouldn’t it—but oh so exciting—if some school board ever agreed to reject all federal funds?

But I won’t hold my breath for that day to come. But, if federal policymakers continue to up the price of their financial help, who knows what the future might hold?

Del Stover, Senior Editor

Naomi Dillon|June 2nd, 2011|Categories: Policy Formation, Budgeting, American School Board Journal|Tags: , , , , , |

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