I found it noteworthy about the same time as the Tax Day Tea Party protests against mounting federal spending and deficits that leading U.S. Senator Tom Harkin is talking about another bailout for schools. I will refrain from further comment at this point, but instead point readers back to my February 11 post: “It’s time to face the fiscal tidal wave.” Most directly, research scholars James Guthrie and Arthur Peng make a salient point about the rapidly increasing share of federal funding in the K-12 system:
The Obama Administration’s stimulus injection of unprecedented billions in additional federal funding likely ensures that education’s comfortably cushioned resource condition will continue for the current economic downturn.
However, the stimulus injection may have dramatically added to the federal function in education. Unlike ever before in history, the federal government now appears to be the fiscal flywheel protecting the nation’s schools during economic downturns. This change has occurred with hardly any national debate.
Ironically, the federal government as a major funding partner may portend the end of automatic spending increases for schools. As school funding become more centralized, both at the state and federal level, it is forced to compete more intensely with other public sector services and is subjected to a far less favorable political backdrop. Whereas local school districts are often free to job future salary increases, pension liabilities, and retiree health care costs onto state authorities, the greater the federal and state funding roles, the larger these previously extraneous conditions become as funding obstacles.
Such fiscal dynamics, coupled with the long-standing static nature of student achievement, do not bode well for future school revenues. A new era of fiscal stringency is emerging and it may come quickly.
I’m not sure what the entire answer is at this point. It is time to pursue serious structural reforms, for sure. Expanded choices for students, changes in how school employees are paid, as well as clear and simple policies that promote accountability and transparency, all are needed. But local and state leaders may require even further creativity to help overcome a critical challenge on behalf of the long-term health of Colorado K-12 education: Wean schools off the growing dependence on federal dollars to go the extra mile in building trust and keeping faith with cash-strapped taxpayers.
I see no way to avoid pain entirely. But truly bold leadership could put Colorado schools in a much better place to serve the students of today and of the next generation.
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