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School Groups Ask Duncan to Scrutinize Cuts in California

A coalition of school districts and statewide education groups in California is playing a little hardball with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over the Republican chief executive's latest budget proposal.

Ticked off by what they estimate would be a $3.1 billion blow to the state's K-12 budget if lawmakers agree to the governor's spending plan, the coalition, calling itself the Education Management Group, fired off a six-page letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan that essentially seeks to rat out the governor for what they say amounts to a budget shell game that hurts schools. (Indisputably, public schools in California have been cut to the bone already over the last two years as the recession-battered state has struggled to balance out-of-whack budgets.)

The Schwarzenegger administration, these groups allege, is using an accounting ruse to give the appearance that California will meet the "maintenance of effort" provision of the federal economic-stimulus law, which requires states to preserve K-12 funding at least at 2006 levels. Maintaining that minimum funding for K-12 is a condition for states to receive money from the stimulus program's State Fiscal Stabilization Fund. California applied last month for its final share of that fund.

The letter delves into somewhat technical accounting questions around "forward funding" and using "verifiable revenue-based data." But the upshot is this: The group wants Secretary Duncan to force Gov. Schwarzenegger to play by the rules, a move that it says would stave off about $600 million in cuts to K-12 in fiscal 2011.

Here's the key paragraph in the letter:

"In closing, we greatly appreciate the federal government's investment in schools. In this time of brutal state cuts to education, federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds have served as a lifesaver for California students and schools. We also understand the federal government must be sensitive to the financial problems faced by states. However, the maintenance of effort assurance that California recently submitted to your office seems to seek federal cooperation to cut schools disproportionately and with impunity."


No word on whether anyone from the U.S. Department of Education has responded to the letter, but I'll update this post when I get an answer.

Most of the school districts that signed the letter are medium-sized suburban systems or small, rural ones. The two biggies that did sign on are San Diego and San Francisco, which together enroll about 190,000 kids. San Diego Unified officials have been particularly pro-active about speaking out against state budget cuts. The district is also notable for being the biggest system that declined to participate in California's bid for Race to the Top Fund grants under the stimulus program.

And it looks like more advocacy for sparing public schools is in the works, according to this news release from the California Teachers Association.

UPDATE: A second group of advocates for public education in California has also sent a letter to Sec. Duncan that hammers on the same issue. Neither group has heard a peep yet from the department.

Does anyone out there know if the "maintenance of effort" issue is bubbling up in other states?

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