How do you solve a problem like Rick Perry?
As we all know, last year Congress made $787 billion available to the states, in the name of economic stimulus, to help unstick many of the funding streams that states were stuck on. Chief among these streams is K-12 education, as states were handed buckets of cash to jumpstart education spending, fill funding gaps, and ensure that school budgets did not face measureable cuts in the name of the economic downturn.
Most states put the money to use as intended (though Eduflack still offers that the original intent of ARRA was NOT to spend stimulus dollars on one or two years’ of teachers’ salaries, but I’ve clearly lost that argument). But a few, including Texas, didn’t quite do as they were told. Just as Texas refused to apply for a Race to the Top grant citing its independence and general superiority to every other state in the union, the state’s governor, Rick Perry, chose to violate the strings attached to those original stimulus checks.
When dollars were electronically transferred to the states in 2009, each state had to pledge that, when it came to K-12 education, the money was to boost education funding. States were not to take the federal handout and then cut the state’s own contribution to education, essentially playing a short-term funding shell game. The worry, of course, is if the states cut their share this year, and there is no federal support in the following year, that cut will never be regained.
Of course, Texas got $3 billion last year under the stimulus specifically designated for education. And Perry critics have been quick to note that the Republic of Texas cut the state’s share of education funding, using those federal dollars to make up the difference. So instead of the intended increased investment in public education, Texas held flat, with a real risk that future budgets will decrease, following the state contribution trend.
As expected, Congress is hot under the collar about Texas not following the rules (including the never shy Texas Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett). So the U.S. House of Representatives figured out a workaround for their Perry problem. In the supplemental appropriations bill passed by the House last week (the one including new funding for edujobs), Democratic congressmen decided to bypass Governor Perry and offer education dollars directly to Texas school districts (including Doggett’s home city of Austin).
The plan is simple. Texas school districts are eligible to receive more than $800 million to help pay for teachers’ salaries. But there is one catch. Those Independent School Districts seeking such federal assistance need to have the Good Governor certify that the state won’t cut education funding (or at least won’t cut it more than anything else in the upcoming Texas budget). Get the assurance, get the money. Fail to get it, and you can blame your governor for potential teacher layoffs. The full story can be found here in the Houston Chronicle’s Texas on the Potomac blog.
Congress definitely deserves points for creativity. But isn’t such an action just a little bit punitive? Are we slapping Perry’s hand because he didn’t want to play ball on RttT or because he doesn’t want to ride the wave that is common core standards? Are we angered that Texas continues to maintain its K-12 superiority? Are we troubled that the usually effective federal funding carrot wouldn’t work with this Texas mustang?
If the name of the game is indeed student achievement and boosting student academic performance, we can’t lose sight of that. If Congress is going to make edujobs money a federal requirement, like Title I and IDEA, then they just need to do that. But playing games like this (with a Governor who seems to enjoy a good game of chicken) is just bad politics. Lasting school improvement comes when the feds are supporting state and local efforts. It doesn’t come when the feds look to drive a wedge between the LEA and the SEA, making the school district choose between the governor and Congress like a bad TV divorce.
We should be looking for ways to bring Texas into the national ed reform fold, not offering reasons for the Lone Star State to snub DC and hurt its school districts in the process. Threats and ultimatums aren’t quite the way to get Texas to go along. Thousands of good teachers are likely to pay the price, by not getting that federal edujobs money, but tens of thousands of Texas students will truly pay as state- and district-led improvement efforts are slowed or diverted to make up for the lack of federal cash.
This quick little workaround in a quick little supplemental spending bill could have lasting impact.