Saying No in the Last Frontier

Perhaps it is the old Capitol Hill rat in me, but Eduflack finds it fascinating to watch some Republican governors perform these painful Kabuki dances to refuse portions of the economic stimulus package.  I sort of understand Louisiana’s concerns regarding unemployment funds and the required changes ARRA money would demand of state unemployment laws.  After all, no one want to make legal changes that will require state fiscal obligations well after the federal dollars are gone.

I find it more difficult for South Carolina to consider refusing the education stimulus dollars wholesale, putting the jobs of 4,000 teachers in the Palmetto State at risk.  The political cynic in me has to believe that SC Gov. Mark Sanford is simply using the issue to gain some better negotiating ground with the state teachers’ union on larger issues.
But I am really scratching my head trying to figure out what goes into the thinking process of Alaska Gov. — and once and future GOP superstar — Sarah Palin.  Or maybe there is nothing going through that pretty little head at all.  For those who missed it, this week Palin announced that Alaska will NOT be taking the Title I and IDEA funds made available through the economic stimulus package.
That’s right.  Alaska will be refusing the automatic increases in Title I and special education dollars that are being readied for immediate delivery to the states.  No to dollars that will be distributed through existing funding structures with no real new regulations or requirements of them.  No to dollars to fund federal education programs that are mandated by law and required by statute.  After all, it is not like Alaska can all of a sudden decide it is not going to abide by the IDEA laws and refuse special education services to students in need.
What is even more entertaining is the reasoning that the good governor of the Last Frontier provided.  Following is a statement from the Governor’s official website:
“The law requires me to certify that the requests I forward for legislative approval will meet the requirements of the ARRA to create jobs and promote economic growth,” Governor Palin said. “Legitimately, I can only certify capital projects that are job-ready. Alaska has seen unprecedented increases in the level of state funding for education because that is our priority. I don’t want to automatically increase federal funding for education program growth, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, at a time when Alaska can’t afford to sustain that increase.” “Simply expanding state government under this federal stimulus package creates an unrealistic expectation that the state will continue these programs when the federal funds are no longer available,” said Governor Palin. “Our nation is already over $11 trillion in debt; we can’t keep digging this hole.”

It is nice to know that Palin takes the whole notion of “shovel-ready” seriously when it comes to economic stimulus money.  But when it comes to statements like this, it seems the good governor is shoveling a little more than just snow.  Title I money is to ensure that students in the lowest of low-income communities have the resources necessary to access a high-quality education.  Surely, Alaska has low-income communities and students in need.  IDEA is intended to meet the needs of special needs students, those with legally recognized disabilities who may need special assistance or specific education interventions to maximize their learning opportunities.  I have to believe there is a special education population in Alaska (and a true cynic would point out that Palin’s youngest child would be classified in the IDEA population when he hits the public schools in a few years).
Palin’s entire argument against additional federal education funding is that, as the chief fiscal steward for Alaska, she can only take stimulus money that creates jobs and promotes economic growth.  Perhaps she needs to pay a little more attention to the content at those National Governors Association meetings she’s supposed to attend twice a year.  For a governor, education is the primary level for creating jobs and promoting economic growth.  Strong schools produce a pipeline of future workers prepared for the job opportunities of the future.  Students with a strong core education knowledgebase and 21st century skills are the ultimate catalysts for economic growth and opportunity.  At a time when so many governors are seeking to enhance their K-12 education options and provide more opportunity for students, Palin seems to be turning back the clock, hoping that minimizing the breadth and depth of public education is in the best interests of the next generation of Alaskans.
When the federal government announced $25 billion in additional, immediate funding for Title I and IDEA, the beauty of the plan was that there were no new substantial strings or bureaucracy attached.  Money would flow through existing funding streams, to current Title I and IDEA schools.  No new applications, no new formulas, no new requirements.  The dollars are intended to give a booster shot to existing Title I and special education classrooms, giving them a needed boost as the school districts around them are struggling.
Such funding is not an expansion of state government, nor will refusing the funding do anything to reduce the federal debt.  The money is obligated.  Refusing it does nothing other than punishing those students who need a helping hand the most.  How can one oppose additional resources to provide low-income students new learning materials?  How can one oppose additional investment in special education classrooms, particularly if it doesn’t come out of your own pocket?  And how can one say economic stimulus funds are only to go to capital expenditure projects, particularly after all of the guidance and language coming out of the US Department of Education talks about the need to invest in instructional materials, technology, teacher supports and such geared primarily at boosting student achievement.
Maybe Palin’s got it all figured out, and has a special plan to have all her schools meet AYP and have every student grade level proficient without needing additional dollars.  Maybe she already has the full confidence that all Alaska students — particularly those in Title I and sped classrooms — already have the plans and pathways in place to obtain the skills and knowledge to perform in the 21st century economy and secure the new jobs that are yet to be created.  Maybe she has a model for school improvement we’re just not aware of, and public education in Alaska is in great shape and good hands.
Or maybe she is just planning on using economic stimulus dollars to build weekend cabins for the caribou, believing they create jobs (at least for those building such cabins) and promote economic growth (establishing a tourist industry for the caribou, once we figure out how to tap into their economy).
Regardless, Palin’s decision is yet another display of trying to win political points at the expense of at-risk students.  Like every state in the union, Alaska has real needs when it comes to sustaining and improving K-12 public education.  Saying no to such education dollars to win kudos from conservatives or to better position oneself for higher aspirations in 2012 is just downright irresponsible.  Every Alaskan parent, every Alaskan student, every Alaskan business, and every Alaskan teacher should be offended by Palin’s line in the snow.  And every Title I classroom and special education program in the remaining 49 should li
ne up to ask for Alaska’s share of the economic stimulus fund.  
If they don’t want to improve educational opportunity in Title I and special education classrooms up in the Last Frontier, there are plenty of other responsible governors and schools superintendents who can make strong use of such an investment, and can even do so with job creation and economic growth in mind.  Even in Alaska, those education pathways can be bridges to economic and workforce success, particularly for at-risk students.  Otherwise, Alaska and Gov. Palin are simply building educational bridges to nowhere, failing to use all the resources available to them and failing to equip all students with access to the learning opportunities they both need and deserve.

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