Colorado State Board of Education Members Weigh in on "Stimulus" Bill

You may think I spend a lot of time complaining about the education spending proposal inside Congress’ so-called stimulus (I prefer “magical money tree”) bill. Well, rather than just get up on my soapbox again (but hey, if I don’t stand up there, nobody will see me), I decided to share firsthand thoughts from a couple of Colorado’s state education officials on the issue.

Earlier this week, new State Board of Education member Marcia Neal shared some thoughts on the education portion of the federal stimulus bill with Grand Junction reporter Mike Saccone:

“I think there’s growing concern over this huge amount of money they’re throwing around,” Neal told Political Notebook today. “As always my concern … is the issue of local control. That when you accept money from the feds and they direct the way you spend it, they’re basically directing your local educational program and increasing your dependence on federal money.”

Neal, a Republican, said she hopes the Senate, when it mulls the economic stimulus package this week, clears up the issue of local control.

As I’ve highlighted before, Marcia Neal has expressed support for choice and local innovation. My friends in the Education Policy Center, though, wanted to follow up on her recent comments. Neal responded by elaborating on her legitimate concern that the massive spending bill before Congress robs the state and local communities of the opportunity to discuss and decide the merits of issues and reform strategies:

I was not a member of the board when CAP4K was adopted, and haven’t yet gotten a sense of what the conversations were, but I am opposed to the concept of all day kindergarten. When Gov. Ritter cut that capital money from the budget I was hoping that we would have the chance to repeat that discussion. Now it may well be a part of the stimulus package. I’m not sure Colorado citizens have ever had a thorough discussion on that option and, if stimulus funds are received, we may never have the opportunity. That said, however, I have not been a member of the board long enough to have a very clear idea of how we might bring the discussion back to local consensus. [link added]

I’m told a good rule of thumb for policy is that decisions made closest to home, whenever possible, are the most effective. That’s why, ironically, State Board chairman Bob Schaffer does support one small part of the education funding in the bill: special education.

“Increasing funding for IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] is something Congress should be considering anyway, and that’s probably the one thing that the federal government can do to represent the most freedom for states and local government,” Schaffer said. “IDEA is the largest unfunded federal mandate in education.”

But chairman Schaffer objects to the billions in education spending being sold as part of a “stimulus” package.

“It is very clear that much of the money is of great interest within the narrow scope of ongoing education spending, but the spending is obviously not well-designed from the perspective of job growth,” he said.

Schaffer urges the members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation “to lead in re-defining the federal government’s role in spending when it comes to government-owned schools. However, to suggest that important spending considerations are the basis for economic stimulus is disingenuous at best.”

Schaffer did suggest one major improvement that could be made would be to relax or remove the application of Davis-Bacon labor wage rules that raise the cost of completing school construction projects, and would enable the government to meet those facilities needs more efficiently.

Apart from his own views, the chairman said he and the State Board have had some input into the debate through their representation in the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), but that their influence has been diluted among “the opinion of 49 other states”.