Holiday Weekend Blockbusters: Not Spidey! Instead…The Money Pit…And, Dumb and Dumber…

Last week, Ted Stilwill, the state superintendent in Iowa and president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, fired back at House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Boehner over the unobligated funds issue. Stilwill took sharp issue with the insinuation that states are sitting on federal funds that could be used for No Child Left Behind.

From Stilwill’s letter:

As the nation’s chief state school officers, we write to express our strong objections with your recent comments regarding federal funding to support public education. You assert that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is adequately funded because states are “sitting on” billions of unspent dollars. You also state, “we are increasing federal education spending more quickly than states can actually spend the money.” If these statements are meant to defend the current level of federal funding for education, they are deliberately misleading. Your statements ignore the budgeting practices authorized by Congress and misrepresent the quality work of our nation’s chief state school officers. As chairman of the Committee on Education and Workforce, we call on you to acknowledge that states are in fact following the federal laws and guidance regarding the expenditure of federal funds for NCLB.

Throughout the last six months, the Committee on Education and the Workforce has cited a U.S. Department of Education (ED) Grant Administration and Payment System (GAPS) report that identified $5.7 billion in unexpended funds from fiscal years 2000, 2001, and 2002 and implied that states are not taking full advantage of appropriated funds for NCLB. It may be understandable for members of the general public to assume that federal funds flow immediately to states after an appropriation bill is signed, but you or members of your staff know better. Indeed, states could issue press releases expressing a concern that we have not been “paid $16.8 billion owed to us for more than a year.” However both that statement and yours would be equally foolish since both disregard the budgeting regulations and practices authorized by Congress.

This is the nut of the matter:

It is also most inaccurate to suggest that because states and schools have not spent their funding, it is going unused. Of the funds that are still unexpended, most are already committed to pay for specific projects; they are in a queue waiting to be expended for ongoing contracts. The comments fail to distinguish between funds that have been obligated to support specific projects and activities and those funds that are unobligated.

But there is also this:

As the nation’s chief state school officers, we particularly resent the implication that state education agencies, rather than Congress, are somehow blocking the flow of funds to local classrooms. Not only is the insinuation untrue, but state education agencies and their chiefs have cooperated fully with the administration and with Congress in a partnership to implement No Child Left Behind – indeed we are on the front lines of that partnership. Now you inaccurately suggest that any lack of resources appears to be of our own making.

Pretty strong stuff (and an early draft was even stronger…). To be sure, a lot of Democrats misread the public appetite for simply spending more on education without accompanying reforms. Yet surely a more grievous miscalculation is this apparent Republican strategy of arguing that states are awash in federal money. First of all it’s not true. And second, state level fiscal constraints are causing discernable problems and most voters are not able to distinguish between local and state dollars and federal ones.

Whether the press catches on to the unspent funds gamesmanship on is an open question but if the Republicans end up getting pummeled on this, they have no one to blame but themselves. The penny wise/pound foolish approach to NCLB funding was pretty dumb politically, calling attention to it with stunts like this, even dumber.

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