School districts across the country have been feeling the crunch of the down economy and have had to adjust their budgets accordingly. Many schools have been forced to cut vital programs, while others are getting by with extra federal funding.
The issue has become a heated political war in recent months. Democrats in Congress recently passed legislation providing billions of dollars in funding to schools nationwide, but Republicans almost unanimously opposed it.
Now the two candidates for Massachusetts' Sixth Congressional District seat – Democratic Congressman John Tierney and Republican challenger Bill Hudak – are speaking out about education funding and the federal government's role in our schools.
Uncle Sam in Our Schools
Last year, Hudak filled out a questionnaire in which he wrote that he supported dismantling the U.S. Department of Education and giving responsibility of local schools to states and towns. Tierney has focused on that stated intent and has said that it shows Hudak to be extreme and dangerous.
"I think that's [dismantling the Department of Education] reckless idea, a recycled idea that goes all the way back to the Reagan administration," Tierney said.
Recently, Hudak said the Tea Party survey was misleading and that he does not want to abolish the Department of Education and wants to reform it after a full review of the department.
"Obviously, an informed citizenry is critical to the continued success of the district and the country, but money spent on education must reach the children, not be bogged down in bureaucracy and education labor disputes," Hudak said.
But Tierney insists that the Department of Education is already efficient.
"Ninety-nine cents out of every dollar of assistance goes directly to [the schools]," Tierney said.
Semantics aside, the two candidates have engaged in a debate that has been largely overlooked in this campaign; the debate over whether the federal government should be responsible for local schools.
Progress or Dependency
On decreasing education spending, Tierney said that would damage local school districts too much.
"Right now states and local school districts get about 10 percent of their funding from the federal government," Tierney said. "So that would be a serious blow to them."
Hudak sees federal support as a crutch, not a solution, and said he favors corporate involvement with school funding to help alleviate the problem of tight school budgets.
"To be sure, the federal government has created a financial dependency by taking funds from the states; then deciding how and under what circumstances to return them and to whom – resulting in disparate misappropriation of education dollars and significant administrative waste," Hudak said. "Ultimately, I favor keeping the money in the states in the first place and gradually over a period of years phasing out federal government involvement in funding the local schools."
Hudak does not say how schools should offset any cuts in federal funding. And in fact, he added that he supports strong federal support of special education and Title 1 programs.
Tierney embraces the idea of federal involvement in schools and says the bigger picture of progress in education nationwide requires federal involvement. Collecting data, making sure all states are able to educate their children properly, and determining which states need more help, among other things, are factors that make strong federal funding and involvement necessary, he said.
"All of this is vitally important to our communities, and I think the federal government has a role to play," Tierney said. "It's a national issue, there's a need for people to move around, and we have to stay competitive internationally. So we've been pretty attentive to issues that towns are facing, because we think it's important to keep the schools alive."
North Andover's school system is being kept afloat by federal funding, both from the Recovery Act (commonly known as the stimulus) and the federal Race to the Top program.
"We want to make sure that every child gets an education and opportunity," Tierney said. "They're only going to be that age once."
Recently, lawmakers on Beacon Hill decided to enact a new set of federal standards in place of its MCAS standards. Republicans have assailed this move as encroachment of the federal government into state matters at the expense of Massachusetts' high standards for students.
But the move made millions of dollars in federal funding available to the state. And Democrats have said that Common Core will strengthen Massachusetts schools as well as schools nationwide and will not require states to lower standards to adjust to the federal standards.
"They [Common Core standards] were the product of the state movement," Tierney said. "This wasn't a top down thing. It was initiated by the states. Every state except Texas is joining forces, developing higher standards. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have ratified the Common Core."
Massachusetts is free to make state standards more rigorous than the federal Common core standards as well, because a provision in Common Core allows for states to develop their own policies above the federal standards. And Massachusetts is leading the consortium that will develop the Common Core standards nationwide.
"I'm pretty confident that we will be able to maintain competitive advantage in Massachusetts, where we have the best schools," Tierney said.
Higher Education Affordability
Local school districts are not alone in feeling the crunch of the down economy. Although Massachusetts is known for its high number of quality colleges and universities, college affordability has been a major roadblock for many.
"Productive, gainful employment (in other words, good jobs) for Americans in a knowledge-based, Internet-connected, globally-competitive world will be almost entirely dependent on the quality of America's schools," Hudak said.
Tierney wants Congress to do more to help young people afford college degrees. He cited the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act passed by Congress earlier this year, which he cosponsored. That legislation increased federal assistance for higher education, increased Pell Grant maximum allowances to $5,500 and eliminated federal subsidies for private student loan lenders.
"That didn't cost the taxpayers any more money, and it generated $61 billion in savings over the next 10 years," Tierney said. "We did that by eliminating the private special interest lenders. They used to get subsidies for lending to students and had 90 percent of payments guaranteed. That was very lucrative for them. We eliminated that."
Tierney also wants to see more federally funded programs in community colleges that train people in skills marketable in the workforce.