How does state fare in education dollars battle?

School Talk
By: Vicki Barber
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No one considers California a small state. In physical size, California is only surpassed by Alaska and Texas. With its population of more than 32 million, there’s no other state even close. Therefore, it’s no surprise that California receives the lion’s share of the federal education dollars. This year that’s a large amount. For California in 2009 under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that “large amount” translates to over $2.6 billion. Add the Recovery Act dollars of over $1.5 billion and we’re grateful to be the biggest state. Add Recovery Act Special Education dollars to the mix for more than $1.2 billion and the Recovery Act Stabilization funds of almost $4.8 billion and you may begin to believe we’re good, and everything is fine. However, this year every dollar counts. This year we’re also the state with the biggest deficit in the country, of about $60 billion over a two-year period. Just when you thought those billion dollar price tags from the feds looked good, you begin to realize that there are still alligators in the swamp. For one thing, the federal dollars are earmarked for specific purposes. If a school in El Dorado County is looking to support its music program or retain its small class size at the fourth grade, there may not be a way to accomplish that goal. A fair portion of the federal dollars will go to supporting lower-income students, school improvement grants, and special education services. The Recovery Act Stabilization dollars also have specific requirements such as averting layoffs, improving student achievement, and improving accountability measures. The music program may not fit into any of these system requirements. That brings us to a second big issue, the state’s own budget deficit. Class size might fit into a federal category such as improving student achievement, but it could be a stretch. With the huge state budget deficit, school administrators and Boards must take into account there might not be enough money regardless of the infusion of federal dollars into the system. A third issue is the ongoing possibility of mid-year cuts. Over the last several years, we’ve had several “opportunities” to make mid-year adjustments to school budgets. Teachers are given year-long contracts. Those contracts can’t be broken without incurring legal costs, so other options are generally used to balance the budget, such as reducing non-certificated staff, lowering the heating and cooling costs, turning off the lights, or other more drastic measures. You get the picture. It is complex and, in spite of the federal dollars coming in, there’s simply not enough money to continue business as usual. I’ve heard it said, that this is a good opportunity for us to take stock of our values. I agree that we need to re-evaluate our beliefs and expectations. I just want to be sure we remember that the children we educate today are the ones who will be figuring out how to get us out of the next set of challenging circumstances in our future. Let’s make sure they receive all the educational support we can give them so they will have the skills to handle those yet-to-be-identified issues. Vicki L. Barber has been with the El Dorado County Office of Education for 25 years. In 1994, she was elected as the Superintendent of Schools.