Education advocates of all stripes shook their heads in disbelief Friday at the revelation that $71 million in education stimulus dollars sat unused for nearly a year while the state's budget crisis devoured teachers' jobs, eliminated classes, kicked kids off school buses and closed down school libraries.
"We are at a loss as to why this is happening. Why would the Legislature move so slowly or not move at all?" asked Sandra Jackson, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. "On the one hand, they want to Race to the Top for some funding. But when they get other funding for our children, they want to drag their feet across the finish line."
"Wow. That's pretty bad. That's awful," said Liz Guillen, legislative director for Public Advocates, one of several community groups suing the state to reform the school funding system. "A lot of districts could use that money."
Virginia Strom-Martin, former Assemblywoman turned legislative director for Los Angeles Unified, was equally frustrated by the logjam to get these one-time funds released.
These funds should have been used in a classroom by now. We're not sure what else we can do. We've tried and tried. I've worked with many of them in the Capitol. I believe their intentions were good. But nevertheless, the money has not reached the classroom to where it was intended (to go).
Nearly a year of negotiation among state education officials, finance officials and the Legislature over education technology funds has kept the money in state bank accounts, unable to help thousands of K-to-12 schools it was intended for.
While a debate about expenditures is nothing new, the stall over these stimulus funds is significant because it appears to undercut the intent of the Obama Administration's stimulus program – which was to spend money quickly to help revive a sluggish economy.
Documents and interviews suggest some of the delay is rooted in missteps made by state education officials.
Keric Ashley, a state education administrator, said officials believed that since the stimulus award was attached to an education technology program the state had been participating in since 2002, they already had legal authorization to disperse the funds. So they began taking applications from school districts. But state law required legislative approval and the Department of Education didn't formally alert lawmakers to its plans until several months after collecting school district bids, a legislative review concluded.
In November, the joint legislative budget committee chaired by Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny, D-Imperial County, stiff-armed the Education Department's move by sending a letter to then-Finance Director Michael Genest, rejecting the department's plan.
Several meetings ensued as education officials, finance officials, the legislative analyst's office and legislators hawked competing views of what the education technology stimulus could be spent for.
Some wanted the money to be spent on the state's Race to the Top efforts. Others wanted the money to bolster the state's weak data-tracking systems. Still others pushed for spending the funds on preschool and college career training programs. The Department of Education held fast to the position that the grant was meant to help fourth through eighth graders and that local districts should decide how to spend the money.
Meanwhile days became weeks. Weeks became months. No action still.
Some school districts began to lobby lawmakers directly.
In an April 10 letter, Ramon Cortines, superintendent of LAUSD wrote to the chairs of the Assembly and Senate budget committees:
I am very disturbed and frustrated that the State of California has yet to release $71.6 million in Enhancing Education Through Technology grant funding that was authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Los Angeles Unified School District along with districts throughout the state depends on this funding to continue their integration of technology into the classroom. Without this funding, these efforts will stop because of California's ongoing budget problems and cuts to education.
In May, LAUSD and other districts followed up on their letter-writing campaign by sending officials to the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to loose the funds.
Eventually, a compromise of sorts was reached and legislators decided half of the $71 million could be awarded to school districts, charter schools and county offices of education with state-approved technology plans.
Last week, state education officials unveiled that list of 1,063 stimulus awardees. To see the list, click here.
However, legislators decided to hold on to the other half of the stimulus – roughly $37 million – while they continue to debate how it should be used.
Recently that process has concluded in the Assembly, Strom-Martin said Friday. But the stall continues in the Senate's budget and fiscal review committee chaired by Sen. Ducheny. As of last week, the committee's website suggested a meeting could take place this week.
Some educators see a shrinking window to take advantage of the funds:
Waiting until the 2010-11 school year is unacceptable as these funds must be encumbered by June 30, 2011, and expended by September 30, 2011, wrote Cortines. There is no way we can effectively and strategically implement programs on such a short time frame.
Paul Tran, spokesperson for Californians for Justice, said the current episode over stimulus funding is emblematic of a consistently broken approach to governance.
"I think this does a disservice to students and to schools and it doesn't uphold the promise of stimulus," Tran said. "But I'm not surprised. The No. 1 job for legislators is to pass the budget every year. And we see how well that goes."