Stateline Story

States and Schools: A Race Against Time

A couple of weeks ago, Oklahoma's Board of Education voted to deny state funds to a small school in Adair County near the Arkansas line, effectively closing it. It was a traumatic move, but the school had not been able to make payroll and the state felt it had no choice.

"I suspect we'll see a lot of that," says Sandy Garrett, who has been Oklahoma's chief education officer for almost 20 years. "We have a lot of others that are on real shaky ground. We'll know more when they close out their books on June 30."

Oklahoma, which has a total state budget of about $7 billion, faced a $1.2 billion deficit this year, forcing lawmakers to turn to unproven revenue-generating schemes such as new fines on uninsured motorists. Garrett expects more shortfalls ahead. But Oklahoma, like other states, got a reprieve last year when federal stimulus money allowed the retention of more than 4,600 school jobs.

This year, states are once again pinning their hopes on the Obama administration even as their education budgets have been walloped by disintegrating revenues. The federal government is dangling a $4 billion carrot in the form of its Race to the Top program, based on competitive grants which were included in the $787 billion stimulus package and for which states can apply. The first two winners, Delaware and Tennessee, split $600 million, leaving $3.4 billion up for grabs. Last week, 35 states and the District of Columbia applied for the second round of grants. Winners will be announced in the fall. Federal officials expect 10 to 15 states to walk away with money.

The conflict between staggering shortfalls and federal largess has forced upon legislators nationwide a renewed preoccupation with education policy. To many desperate lawmakers, federal aid is their only protection against crushing cutbacks in school programs. And they've been willing to sign off on seemingly radical reforms in order to improve their odds of landing the federal money.

"It's the race to the trough," says Grover Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "They need money and the only way to get it is to compete for federal funds and the only way to do that is to dance to Washington's tune."

A thousand cuts

There was a time when K-12 school funding was considered all but untouchable in the state budget process, but those days are over nearly everywhere. Last year, 34 states reduced K-12 education funding in their budgets, according to the National Governors' Association. Another six had to make cuts later, after their budgets were enacted.

This year, 31 states made cuts. Arizona slashed all-day kindergarten. Hawaii furloughed teachers for 17 days. Vermont and Mississippi are considering consolidation of districts. In Oklahoma, the legislature passed a bill allowing local districts to opt out of some state requirements to save money. And in Utah and Louisiana, districts discussed going to a four-day school week.

It could get worse. Last month, Congress failed to pass an emergency funding bill to pump $23 billion into schools to save jobs. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote in an op-ed this week that the bill could have saved up to 300,000 school jobs at a time when stimulus funding is winding down.

The picture is just as bad for higher education. In the 2010 fiscal year, 36 states made cuts to their college or university systems and 31 included cuts in their 2011 budgets. Some of those reductions were later backfilled with stimulus funds, but tuition has gone up, staff have been laid off and programs have been eliminated. A 32 percent tuition increase in California last fall led to student demonstrations at campuses across the state.

Faced with continuing grim prospects, dozens of states signed off on the Obama administration's pet initiatives for K-12 education in the hopes of landing some Race to the Top money. For instance, Connecticut and Louisiana agreed to include student test scores as part of teachers' job evaluations. Maryland, Kentucky and North Carolina will abandon their state-specific academic standards and adopt a common set of goals. Legislators in Oklahoma and New York have loosened their restrictions on charter schools. States also have been courting labor, because teacher union buy-in improves the odds of winning a grant.

These are not new ideas. Advocates have been pushing for these changes for years but opposition from the unions and lukewarm political support made them almost impossible to implement. Perhaps most important, there weren't billions of federal dollars on the line back then.

But even with the lure of Race to the Top money, shepherding these bills through legislatures has not been easy.

In New York, a bill to increase the number of charter schools died in January, to the consternation of Governor David Paterson, who had hoped to use this reform to win money in the first round of Race to the Top grants. Lawmakers finally approved raising the charter school limit last month, days before applications for the second round were due.

In Colorado, a bill to reform teacher evaluations became one of the year's most contentious pieces of legislation. It brought lawmakers to tears in committee meetings and on the floor and split the state's Democratic Party.

In Florida, Republican Governor Charlie Crist bucked his party and vetoed a similar bill to link teacher evaluation to student test scores. The bill, which drew vehement union opposition, drove a wedge between the state's GOP and Crist, who was at the time seeking the party's nomination for the U.S. Senate. Two weeks later, Crist announced he would run for the Senate as an independent.

Growing federal presence

The Race to the Top grant program cements Washington's high-visibility role in education, a role that has been growing since 2001, when Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, requiring that states show steady increases in student proficiency. Unlike that earlier piece of legislation, Race to the Top is a voluntary program created entirely by the Obama administration and funded by the stimulus package that Congress approved last year. Rather than mandating that states make changes, as No Child Left Behind did, it offers incentives designed to be too big to turn down.

"It not only increases the federal influence," says Whitehurst, "but it increases the federal influence through mechanisms that are difficult for states to handle politically. They can't talk to their congressional delegation and say we don't want to do this, because the federal delegation has already given away the keys. Just on pure execution and cleverness it's been a home run for the administration."

Despite the size of the incentives, some states have chosen to sit out the process completely. Texas and Alaska declined to apply for either round of grants. Virginia, which applied in the first round of Race to the Top, passed on applying the second time. In a letter to Education Secretary Duncan, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell objected to the common core standards, calling them "overly prescriptive" and arguing that the state's own standards are higher than the proposed common ones.

But Virginia may not be able to stay on the sidelines for long. Common national standards are part of the Obama administration's blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a process that is several years overdue. With an election in November, Congress is unlikely to tackle school policy this year. But when Washington turns its attention to education, it's likely that many of the reforms laid out in Race to the Top will be included in federal proposals. In that sense, this year's flurry of state legislative action could well be a dress rehearsal for an even bigger national debate.

Tags: Education