“The Courage” to Spend on Schools

Frederick Hess:

This definition of courage has become something of a theme for Obama’s Education Department — despite its reputation for gritty reform-mindedness. Earlier this summer, Maura Policelli, the department’s senior adviser for external affairs, told state officials to stop worrying about funding and “to see how [stimulus] funds can help alleviate layoffs.” She explained that this “require[s] 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.” When one official asked what would happen if a state had “unspent [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] money after 2011,” Policelli said: “You will be fired.” Looks like courage is not just about spending, but about spending quickly.
All of this might be laughable if the feds weren’t making it harder for states and school districts to prepare for rough seas ahead. When asked by the Associated Press what happens if districts use this money as a short-term fix and stand to get hammered next year, Duncan replied, “Well, we’re focused right now, Donna, on this school year. . . . We’re hopeful we’ll be in a much better spot next year.”
Well, while Duncan can hope to his heart’s content, the reality is that things will get much worse for schools before they get better. Scott Pattison, the executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, notes, “There are so many issues that go way beyond the current downturn. . . . This is an awful time for states fiscally, but they’re even more worried about 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014.” Property taxes account for about a third of school spending, but property-tax valuations tend to lag property values by three years — which mean school districts are on the front end of a slide that’s got several years to run. And, as the authors of a recent Rockefeller Institute report note, “Even if overall economic conditions continue to improve throughout 2010, fiscal recovery for the states historically lags behind a national economic turnaround and can be expected to do so in the aftermath of the recent recession.”