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Who Says That Education is Important?

The Obama administration warned states it might withhold millions of dollars if they use stimulus money to plug budget holes instead of boosting aid for schools.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan made the threat in a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. Duncan wrote he is displeased at a plan by Pennsylvania’s Republican-led Senate to reduce the share of the state budget for education while leaving its rainy-day surplus untouched. To do so “is a disservice to our children,” Duncan wrote.

“Each state has an obligation to … protecting our children’s education,” he wrote.

Duncan said the plan might hurt Pennsylvania’s chance to compete for a $5 billion competitive grant fund created by the stimulus law to reward states and school districts that adopt innovations Obama supports.

The education secretary applied similar pressure to Tennessee lawmakers last month after Democrats there blocked a bill to let more kids into charter schools. Duncan warned the state could lose out on extra stimulus dollars, and it appears to have worked: This week, lawmakers revived the bill and put it on a fast track toward passage.

In Pennsylvania, the issue is over school spending, which takes up a huge share of state budgets. State Senate Republicans argue the economy is forcing states across the country to make up for budget cuts with federal stimulus dollars. The Republicans in Pennsylvania State Legislature would like to use the earmarked federal stimulus money instead of the tapping the state’s rainy day fund.

States use rainy-day funds to set aside extra revenue when times are good to use in economic downturns. The surplus funds make it easier for states to borrow money and, when times are tough, help lawmakers avoid tax increases or spending cuts that might worsen a downturn.

In Texas, Arizona and many other states, state lawmakers are still arguing over school spending cuts and the use of stimulus dollars.

Obama did not intend for state lawmakers to simply cut state education spending and replace it with stimulus dollars.

Congress made that tough to enforce; the stimulus law generally does not prohibit states from using some of the money to replace precious state aid for schools. The result is that school districts could wind up with no additional state aid even as local tax revenues plummet.

But Duncan does have leverage; he alone has control over the $5 billion incentive fund. And in some cases, he may be able to withhold some stimulus dollars that have been allocated for a particular state.

My thoughts: When running for election candidates frequently state how important education is and how the future of the country is dependent on our young people. Once elected, they seem to forget their rhetoric. Hopefully the voters won’t forget.

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