When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law last month, it provided a sigh of relief for a great many school districts that were fearing dangerously severe budget cuts. Without doubt, the economy was taking its toll. Real estate taxes are down, and school district budgets would pay the price. Then ARRA swoops in to save the day, offering State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars to ensure that school budgets avoid the ax. The pledge was to assure level school budget funding for the higher of the past two budget years.
Along the way, folks have remained fearful. We’ve heard of state legislatures looking to slash public school funding believing that ARRA dollars could simply fill the gaps. We’ve heard of schools looking to use stimulus dollars to fund long-term obligations, forgetting that such money is a one-time-only spend that is not promised for future years. But we haven’t been that worried about school districts following through with cuts after all, believing that the tens of billions of dollars designated to our public schools under ARRA would do its job.
But in this morning’s Washington Post, we read that we can’t take such assumptions for granted. In a piece by Nelson Hernandez, we learn that Prince Georges County, Maryland is asking for wavers to gut more than $23 million from its public schools budget, even with the large ARRA honey pot close enough to taste.
The reason? The county executive claims that the schools have been well-funded in the past, and he needs the dollars to take care of issues such as public safety. Imagine that. In an urban district that has long struggled and has just started to make progress (just the sort of district the Obama administration is targeting with many of its education improvement policies), we seek to slash the budget because they’ve done alright in years past.
To be fair, County Executive Jack Johnson isn’t looking at ARRA funds. He’s asking the State of Maryland for a waiver from his legislative mandate regarding the minimum that must be spent on local public education. At a time when the value of an education has never been more important, at a time when we see the intersection between the strength of our schools and the strength of our economy, at a time when the federal government is providing new dollars to support our public schools, in a school district that can best be labeled a home to historically disadvantaged students, we are purposely seeking to spend less money. We are seeking to provide less than the minimum required by law. We are seeking to strip well-deserving schools of the opportunities and resources they need — and the taxpayers are supporting.
Jack Johnson should be embarrassed he made such a request, and he should be ashamed that he used such a specious argument to try and strip needed funds from schools in need. Hopefully, Maryland State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick can step in and ensure that Prince Georges County Public Schools continues to at least receive the bare minimum resources required under the law. And hopefully, all of PG County will rally behind Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. to advocate for the needs of PG schools.
Eduflack doesn’t doubt that PG County has financial needs when it comes to public safety and other community issues. But you don’t rob from the schools to pay for the prisons. If anything, we need to do the reverse. We all know the data about educational opportunity and student success. And we know the research on lost opportunities and a life of failures and struggles.
We are looking to communities like PG County to continue their school turnaround, improve student achievement, and expand opportunities to learn. That’s why we are giving them the additional resources to do so, ensuring that schools are spared cuts in the short term. How do we expect our students — particularly those in historically underserved communities — to achieve if we are now seeking special dispensation to deny them the bare minimum when it comes to school dollars and resources?
If PG County is the latest test case, let’s hope we can figure out how to pass the test. In this age of growing demands for student achievement and expanding student achievement gaps, we should be raising our financial minimums when it comes to school funding, not seeking ways to lower them. True leaders, Mr. Johnson, find a way to inspire and offer opportunities to their constituents. They don’t say we’ve done well enough in the past, so its time for you to feel the pain now. It is now way to lead, and it is no way to educate.