After K-12 Stimulus Funding, Are Colorado Schools Ready to Tighten Belts?

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about the federal government’s “magical money tree.” Funny how we forget so quickly about $100 billion of borrowed taxpayer funds shipped around the country to prop up the K-12 status quo. Or have we forgotten?

Rich Lowry at National Review writes a column today that takes a big-picture view of stimulus education funding from the perspective of someone outside the education field. Sometimes it takes that kind of perspective to provide needed wisdom:

The stimulus bill devoted $100 billion to education (about $80 billion of it for K–12). As Reason magazine notes, that’s twice the Department of Education’s annual budget. “Race to the Top” is less than 5 percent of this staggering gusher of money. It’s not “Race to the Top” that is the Obama administration’s signature education initiative, but spending that the teachers’ unions would only have dreamed of two short years ago.

These funds have kept school systems from having to undertake wrenching changes, or any changes at all….

Those intrigued by Lowry’s last sentence should check out the new book Stretching the School Dollar. And so should Colorado school leaders, intrigued or not. It’s with good reason my Education Policy Center friends have made it one of the themes of the (not literal) day. Just check out the sampling of posts Ben DeGrow has written in the past several months for Ed News Colorado.

Education Week blogger Alyson Klein points out that yesterday (Sept. 30) was the last day covered by the largest chunk of stimulus spending and that a government audit of the $53.6 billion in “stabilization funding” found some issues:

Namely, they said the department didn’t do a good enough job in making sure states actually provided the necessary information to support their claims about how much money the states had provided out of their own coffers for higher education and K-12 schools before they got their stimulus checks. Department staff did a good job checking the numbers states provided, but they didn’t ask for enough back-up documentation, the IG said.

Not terrible. And not an indictment of federal bureaucrats doing their jobs. But there are bound to be some problems when the D.C. monolith is doling out so much dough with lots of strings attached. As it looks like we’ve worn out that approach, local school and district leaders should be prepared to adjust. Anyway, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I take a shine to Lowry’s conclusion:

For decades, national education reform has meant more centralization and more federal spending. Maybe it’s time to try the opposite.

Indeed. Given the way the political winds are blowing, we may just see that soon.