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ED Redefines "Courage" to Mean "Spend, Baby, Spend!"

On Monday, the Senate Democratic leadership temporarily pulled the $26 billion kitty for state and local governments (including the $10 billion "teacher bailout"). ED spokesman Massie Ritsch circulated a statement endorsing the proposal on Friday, with no reform quid pro quo, because Secretary Duncan believes that "jobs and reform go hand-in-hand." (I'd no idea that tripling the number of teaching jobs in the past 50 years meant we'd been so busy reforming!).

Senate Majority Leader Reid told POLITICO earlier this week that budgets will be tighter going forward, and White House economists have lamented the slack recovery. As part and parcel of its push for this final burst of temporary aid, you might think this would have ED encouraging districts to prepare themselves for life after ARRA, what with underfunded pensions, property taxes set to take a hit in coming years, and states set to take on new health care spending obligations. You might think ED would be lauding folks for looking ahead, controlling spending, and avoiding unsustainable new outlays. Boy, would you be wrong.

In fact, the Title I Monitor reported last week that the Department of Education has developed an intriguing new definition of courage when it comes to state and district leadership. I used to think that courageous leaders made tough decisions to identify waste, streamline budgets, and plan ahead. But ED is now telling state and district leaders that real courage is to stop thinking so much, spend ARRA dollars FAST, and focus on keeping bodies on the payroll. This is a pretty big shift from the old instructions that districts should make "strategic investments" and keep an eye on the funding cliff. Hmmm... I'm sure this is all about "the kids."

During a June webinar, Maura Policelli, ED's senior advisor for external affairs, told listeners to stop worrying about funding cliffs and to "do your best to see how [ARRA] funds can help alleviate layoffs" and "budget crises." She explained, "And that does require some courage because it does involve the possible risk of investing in staff that you may not be able to retain in the 2011-12 school year." ED is playing hardball in its effort to ensure that money is burned as rapidly and irresponsibly as possible (might the fall elections have anything to do with all this?). When one participant asked, "What happens to unspent ARRA money after 2011," Title I Monitor reports that Policelli retorted: "You will be fired." So much for strategic investment, eh?

So, when these same states come back next year hat in hand, what's the story? Is ED going to fight to reopen the spigot? That would seem at odds with the President's pledges that fiscal responsibility is, you know, just around the corner. And with Reid's acknowledgment that things are going to be tighter going forward. Or is this just politically motivated encouragement for states and districts to ignore the future and hope reallllllly hard that everything works out? On the bright side, Policelli has got me thinking that courage sure is a lot more fun when it means "indulge."

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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