A Responsible “No, Thanks?”

For quite some time, we have heard how the federal economic stimulus package was essential to stabilizing our nation’s economy… and our nation’s schools.  Nearly $800 billion in new funding, with almost 10 percent of that designated for K-12 and higher education needs, is now being readied for implementation.  In our K-12 schools in particular, we’ve heard how such funds are absolutely necessary.  Without federal assistance, and without it fast, we run the real risk of teacher layoffs, school closings, and academic years put in jeopardy.

Eduflack has already opined on the need to get the proper systems in place to ensure that these federal economic stimulants are being dispersed efficiently and are spent wisely.  blog.eduflack.com/2009/02/20/how-do-we-disperse-ed-stimulus-dollars.aspx  But recent days have posed a question that few anticipated when the House and Senate were negotiating priorities and spending levels.  What happens if a governor says no to his or her share of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act?
Who would say no to such a sizable check, particularly one that doesn’t have ponderous new regulations and oversights attached to it?  Well, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has been publicly discussing saying “no, thanks” to the feds.  Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is apparently considering the same thing.  And there are likely a handful of others (presumably all Republican governors) who will offer the same thinking, saying it is irresponsible for them to participate in what they view as an excessive, irresponsible federal funding program.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard such debate.  Several governors originally decided to opt out of Goals 2000 money, resisting federal involvement in what they believed should be local decisionmaking in public education. Similar discussions surfaced at the start of the NCLB era, with states resisting what they perceived as increased federal oversight and significant unfunded mandates.  Such threats were empty, though, as states eventually all lined up to receive their earned share of what was previously the largest federal investment in K-12 education.  The largest, that is, until now.
Do Louisiana’s public schools — particularly those in the Recovery District — not benefit from increased Title I and special education funding?  Does Minnesota not gain from increased funding for teacher incentive programs and added dollars for colleges and universities?  Does either state (or any of the remaining 48, for that matter) not gain from ARRA funding, securing the dollars (for education and beyond) needed to fill the gaps caused by shrinking property values and depleted state coffers?
If Governor Jindal refuses ARRA money in Louisiana, it won’t save the taxpayers in the Pelican State a dime.  Their federal income taxes will not be reduced a penny because they are not participating in ARRA.  Their legislature can’t simply turn to alternative funding sources with a different sense of priorities or reduced accountability to fill the funding gaps.  We’ve passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act because we had nowhere else to turn.  This was our last, best chance to stabilize our social structures, particularly our public schools.
At this stage of the economic game, it is irresponsible for some governors to flippantly say “I’ll pass” when it comes to their state’s share of the stimulus package, particularly with regard to K-12 education.  Their schools need it.  They need dollars to fund teachers, keeping quality educators in the classroom and providing them the ongoing PD and support they need to do their jobs effectively.  They need money for instructional materials and technology to keep students on task as they acquire the skills they need to achieve.  They need funding for data systems and accountability measures, so we can improve instruction and monitor student progress.  They need coin to improve their school buildings and increase access to the Internet.  And they need the checks to meet our obligations when it comes to Title I, special education, and innovations necessary to continue to improve both access and quality of public education.
I recognize that individuals are already using stimulus funding to position themselves for upcoming elections, whether it be re-election in two or four years or a step up the ladder (yes, even for president) in 2012.  But sometimes responsible governance requires doing the responsible thing, and not necessarily the popular thing.  And sometimes it means setting aside partisanship to do what is best for the populace.  That doesn’t mean turning one’s back on stimulus money, it means ensuring that the money you receive is being spent wisely, aligned with both state needs and state priorities.  it means proving the critics wrong and showing such funding can be used responsibly and with focus on real impact and return on investment.
A smart governor can, will, and must use these stimulus dollars to improve public education in their communities.  Smart governors don’t say no when they are offered a strong helping hand (and a large check) at a time of real need.  And a really smart governor steps up an offers to take Louisiana or Minnesota’s share if they take a pass.  Our schools are hurting.  The money’s been approved.  If some states don’t want their share, there have to be others that are willing to “sacrifice” and put additional funds to use.  I’m sure Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour wouldn’t mind Louisiana’s share.  Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm would clearly benefit from Minnesota’s share.  And California’s Governator would gladly take both states’ cuts to apply to the Golden State’s budget.
   

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