Robin Hood Gone Bad

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

Most of us are glad that 2009 has passed. It was, in the words of the Queen Elizabeth II in 1992, an annus horribilis. You can do the translation. The economy tanked, states were in severe budget situations, and the Administration and Congress battled with budgets and ways to support the economy without bankrupting the nation. Oh, and Kris Allen won American Idol.

So we welcome 2010 with wide arms and great hope. But it may not get better. News of state budgets are getting more extreme, and the federal deficit is in serious condition. And it’s an election year, so it will be interesting to see what gets done.

All this stated, I spent this week wondering how to kick off your 1020 commentaries. And then I got an email. My colleague, Martin Gould of the National Council on Disability, sent me a Wall Street Journal article called “Special-Ed Funds Redirected: School Districts Shift Millions of Dollars to General Needs After Getting Stimulus Cash.” And this set me off.

In 2009, school districts across the US used ARRA funds to save jobs that would have been eliminated due to state budget cuts and local cuts. And that is, in part, what the stimulus bill was supposed to do. But according to this WSJ article, what many school districts did in addition to those specified funds was to use ARRA funds that were designated for special education to be repurposed for general use. That is, they used special education funds to save jobs in other areas. As the superintendend of Broward County Public School, James Notter, said in the article, “we absolutely need this.” And the GAO estimates that 44 percent of school districts around the country will do the same thing.

This isn’t Robin Hood we’re talking about. This is taking funds from our most needy students, those with cognitive and physical disabilities, and using it for other purposes in the school district even though Congress expressly targeted these ARRA funds toward students with disabilities and related services. It is reverse Robin Hood. Take from the needy and give to the less needy.

In this economy, I don’t argue that a superintendent shouldn’t be trying to save as many jobs in as many ways as possible. But if the money is targeted for a special, extremely needy group, then what they are doing, even via a technical loophole, should be seen as illegal. James Notter saved 600-900 jobs in Brower County, the sixth largest school district in the nation. He should be fired. Because he used a loophole to take funds from disabled students and use them for other uses, he should be relieved of his duties. Congress decided how these funds should be spend. If Broward and the other 44 percent of districts want to use money in a different way, they can find their own printing press. But they have no right to repurpose funds destined for students with disabilities. That leaves a very bad taste in one’s mouth.

Candace Cortiella, director of the Advocacy Institute in DC, called this a “slap in the face.” And she’s right. Disability activists have been working diligently to get IDEA fully funded over the years, and the stimulus package provided much-needed funds for special education. Well, in 56 percent of the school districts, anyway.

On October 21, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent a letter to states asking them not to relax their standards and to use these funds as they were meant to be. As he stated, “This increase in special education funding under the ARRA represents an unprecedented opportunity to improve outcomes for students with disabilities, and to advance systemic reforms that will have a lasting impact.” And even though he pleaded with them not to compromise Section 616 of IDEA, which gives them flexibility with funds, they did anyway. The states can’t be trusted. States are about the least fiscally accountable entities in the country. They can’t manage their budgets and can’t look further than their next election. This is another example of how the federal government has learned not to trust block grants to the states, because it is a crapshoot whether those funds will be used for their intended purpose.

This is how we start off the New Year, my friends. After 2010, the ARRA funds end. There is unlikely to be a new stimulus program because the feds simply won’t have the funds. On Christmas Eve, the Senate voted to expand the federal deficit ceiling by $290 billion to $12.4 trillion. Without that vote, the federal government would have defaulted on US obligations. And I bet almost none of our readers even knew about this.

While we continue to figure out how to push ourselves out of this fiscal hole, individually, organizationally, and nationally, let’s watchdog our local and state governments to ensure that they are doing what is right, not just what is fiscally allowable. We shouldn’t be taking money from kids in wheelchairs in order to save jobs in school districts that are obviously mismanaged.

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