Preserving the unfunded mandate myth

A few weeks ago, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the lawsuit, backed by the National Education Association (NEA), against the federal government for not "fully funding" the No Child Left Behind law.The NEA may or may not win Pontiac School District v. Spellings.  But regardless of the outcome, the suit has helped to perpetuate the myth that the federal government burdens the states with unfunded mandates.

Neither NEA nor AFT opposes the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Law.  Both want to have their say in it. Priority number one for them is to have it be voucher-less.  Priority number two for them is to kill the idea of HQET (highly qualified effective teachers), an enhanced version of HQT (highly qualified teachers) that bases the status of teachers, at least partially, on test score results.  And priority number three is to get more funding for the new law.

Even if they achieve priority number three and secure massive increases in funding for the law, it won't be cause for them to end their "unfunded mandates" rhetoric.  This rhetoric is important in the unions' state and local budget battles.   

The federal government currently accounts for 9 percent of public K-12 spending.   That won't change much, regardless of the efforts of NEA and AFT.  The real challenge is to keep the states and local districts spending lavish amounts on education.  Recently, a spending-cap movement has swept across the country from state to state.  Some of the caps have taken the form of ballot initiatives.

Yes, the states are where the action is at.  Of the $50 million that NEA spent on the 2008 election cycle, only about $2 million was spent on federal races.  The rest was spent on the states.  Of that, roughly $20 million was spent on ballot initiatives.  Some of the ballot questions were about labor rights.  And some were about spending levels.  Since the 1992 passage of Colorado's Amendment One, spending caps have been on a number of ballots.  And, regardless of the ballot initiatives, education spending is always on the agenda in the state legislatures and school board meetings.

The myth of the unfunded mandate is critical to the success of the unions in defeating spending caps.  It is the first talking point on every list.  Teachers, school staff, and parents parrot the words "unfunded mandates" with little understanding of the fiscal realities of federal education policy.  Say the words enough times, and it becomes a convenient truth.

But it's a myth.  An empty talking point.  A fallacy.

Federal public K-12 programs saw substantial increases during the Bush Administration. All told, their budgets grew 36 percent.  The funding levels for No Child Left Behind increased 41 percent.  And special education spending rose 68 percent.

The original No Child Left Behind legislation authorized spending of up to higher levels than have ever been met, however.  Somehow, NEA, AFT, and the rest of the education special interests have turned the "authorization" into a "promise."  The funds were never promised.   Nothing about NCLB is unfunded.  Is it underfunded?  That's a matter of opinion.   NEA and AFT will always say it's underfunded.

And No Child Left Behind is not a mandate.  Title I funds are a boon to states.  They were before No Child Left Behind.  And they are more so now.  If the states want to opt out of NCLB and Title I, they are welcome to do so.

Prior to No Child Left Behind, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (special education) was the unfunded mandate bogeyman.  And it still is, to an extent. We are  reminded by the education crowd, at fairly regular intervals, that IDEA "promised" (authorized) a federal role of 40 percent of special education spending.  And currently the federal government funds about 17 percent of it.  It's "an outrage," as Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont is fond of saying.

That too is a myth.  Even though the Bush Administration has increased federal funding of IDEA by 68 percent, it has not been enough to keep up with massive state and local spending increases.  What does it really cost to comply with IDEA?  The true excess costs are not known.  We can only use expenditure- driven data to determine the costs.  But who is to say the states and local schools haven't spent way too much?  And obviously they have.  The 40 percent authorization has become a fast-moving target that the federal government cannot -- and should not -- try to reach.

So unfunded mandates are a myth.  But an important myth to the teachers' unions in their daily and yearly battles to secure more state and local spending.  And to ward off those spending caps.

Curtis Hier is a teacher and frequent contributor to VermontTiger.Com.  He can be found frequently blowing the whistle on the education establshment that employs him.
A few weeks ago, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the lawsuit, backed by the National Education Association (NEA), against the federal government for not "fully funding" the No Child Left Behind law.The NEA may or may not win Pontiac School District v. Spellings.  But regardless of the outcome, the suit has helped to perpetuate the myth that the federal government burdens the states with unfunded mandates.

Neither NEA nor AFT opposes the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Law.  Both want to have their say in it. Priority number one for them is to have it be voucher-less.  Priority number two for them is to kill the idea of HQET (highly qualified effective teachers), an enhanced version of HQT (highly qualified teachers) that bases the status of teachers, at least partially, on test score results.  And priority number three is to get more funding for the new law.

Even if they achieve priority number three and secure massive increases in funding for the law, it won't be cause for them to end their "unfunded mandates" rhetoric.  This rhetoric is important in the unions' state and local budget battles.   

The federal government currently accounts for 9 percent of public K-12 spending.   That won't change much, regardless of the efforts of NEA and AFT.  The real challenge is to keep the states and local districts spending lavish amounts on education.  Recently, a spending-cap movement has swept across the country from state to state.  Some of the caps have taken the form of ballot initiatives.

Yes, the states are where the action is at.  Of the $50 million that NEA spent on the 2008 election cycle, only about $2 million was spent on federal races.  The rest was spent on the states.  Of that, roughly $20 million was spent on ballot initiatives.  Some of the ballot questions were about labor rights.  And some were about spending levels.  Since the 1992 passage of Colorado's Amendment One, spending caps have been on a number of ballots.  And, regardless of the ballot initiatives, education spending is always on the agenda in the state legislatures and school board meetings.

The myth of the unfunded mandate is critical to the success of the unions in defeating spending caps.  It is the first talking point on every list.  Teachers, school staff, and parents parrot the words "unfunded mandates" with little understanding of the fiscal realities of federal education policy.  Say the words enough times, and it becomes a convenient truth.

But it's a myth.  An empty talking point.  A fallacy.

Federal public K-12 programs saw substantial increases during the Bush Administration. All told, their budgets grew 36 percent.  The funding levels for No Child Left Behind increased 41 percent.  And special education spending rose 68 percent.

The original No Child Left Behind legislation authorized spending of up to higher levels than have ever been met, however.  Somehow, NEA, AFT, and the rest of the education special interests have turned the "authorization" into a "promise."  The funds were never promised.   Nothing about NCLB is unfunded.  Is it underfunded?  That's a matter of opinion.   NEA and AFT will always say it's underfunded.

And No Child Left Behind is not a mandate.  Title I funds are a boon to states.  They were before No Child Left Behind.  And they are more so now.  If the states want to opt out of NCLB and Title I, they are welcome to do so.

Prior to No Child Left Behind, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (special education) was the unfunded mandate bogeyman.  And it still is, to an extent. We are  reminded by the education crowd, at fairly regular intervals, that IDEA "promised" (authorized) a federal role of 40 percent of special education spending.  And currently the federal government funds about 17 percent of it.  It's "an outrage," as Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont is fond of saying.

That too is a myth.  Even though the Bush Administration has increased federal funding of IDEA by 68 percent, it has not been enough to keep up with massive state and local spending increases.  What does it really cost to comply with IDEA?  The true excess costs are not known.  We can only use expenditure- driven data to determine the costs.  But who is to say the states and local schools haven't spent way too much?  And obviously they have.  The 40 percent authorization has become a fast-moving target that the federal government cannot -- and should not -- try to reach.

So unfunded mandates are a myth.  But an important myth to the teachers' unions in their daily and yearly battles to secure more state and local spending.  And to ward off those spending caps.

Curtis Hier is a teacher and frequent contributor to VermontTiger.Com.  He can be found frequently blowing the whistle on the education establshment that employs him.