Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fed school funds bungled by 'lack of coordination'

I'd say it's more than just a lack of coordination that led to the $111 million cut in federal funds that otherwise would flow to South Carolina's schools from Washington. It's a consequence of electing executive officers with no previous electoral experience, no experience in public K-12 education, and no previous knowledge of the funding mechanisms of the federal government. That, plus a healthy dose of ideological animosity toward the federal government's role in public education. And a tendency to hire political lackeys with even less experience and knowledge to help lead the agency that supports the state's most important institution.

But Rick Noble, CEO of Richland County's First Steps to Community Readiness Partnership, is much more diplomatic when he talked to Al Dozier of the Free Times of Columbia this week. “It shows a lack of coordination with the Department of Education, the governor’s office and the Legislature,” he said.

For a fuller explanation of what the funds are for, read the background here.

At the moment, the prevailing image of this fiasco is a portrait of Keystone Kops, or the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Superintendent Mick Zais is pointing the finger at others, who are pointing fingers right back at him.

Where's Jay Ragley when he could be useful and take the public flogging?

State Department of Education officials say they didn’t get official notice until mid-June that the federal penalty would be levied, a response to the state’s under-funding of special education over the past three years. But the department is quickly moving to fix the shortfall by June 30 and comply with federal requirements.

State officials have already come up with $75 million, money that will flow back to school districts all across the state. That spending could include salaries for special-education teachers, treatment programs for students and classroom supplies. The state also hopes to block the imposition of another $36 million penalty, based on the budget shortages of 2010, with a legal appeal.

Advice from our elders: Doing a thing right the first time saves three times the energy undoing the wrong and making it right. If South Carolina hadn't under-funded its schools' special education needs consistently, we might not be facing the loss of more than a hundred million dollars, plus tens of millions in penalties on top of it.

The House Ways and Means Chairman, Brian White, says he didn't get word from Zais about the problem until late in the game. Zais told him that the U.S. Department of Education didn't raise the issue until June 18, though he admitted to White "that he was aware of the possibility earlier this year and has been in touch with the governor’s office." Well, there's the rub: One without deep knowledge of, and appreciation for, public education consulting another without deep knowledge of, and appreciation for, public education. And these are the two people charged under our Constitution with the greatest responsibility for strengthening and administering our system of public schools.

Now comes Jay Ragley, Zais's "deputy superintendent for legislative and public affairs," with the complete explanation: It's Jim Rex's fault.

“Everything that happened occurred before he [Zais] took office,” Ragley said.

The people of South Carolina can count on Jay Ragley to clear things up and point the way to a solution. It's likely why Zais appointed him "deputy superintendent for legislative and public affairs."

Funny thing: Professionals who have built their careers in public education, who understand and appreciate it, have a different take on the matter.

Roger Smith, executive director of the South Carolina Education Association, says “It’s not the first time this has happened.”

Last year the state lost $144 million in stimulus funds that would have gone to public schools, Smith recalls. The reason: the state was not spending enough money on higher education.

The problem is revenue shortfalls, the likes of which have rarely been seen in the past, Smith says. The state simply did not come up with enough money to satisfy the requirements imposed by federal regulations.

Noble, who was critical of Zais for not seeking a chunk of the $500 million in federal Race to the Top competitive grant funds because too many strings are attached, says it’s puzzling that Zais is now rushing to get the special education funds.

In a letter to Free Times, Noble says he is “confused and speechless” that Zais now fears the loss of federal money.

“Would someone please clarify the state’s position?” Noble asks. “This reminds me of Amazon.”

But Noble acknowledges that Zais should pursue the millions in education funds that could be lost. “Not to would be stupid,” he says.

Perhaps South Carolina's public schoolchildren would benefit from having education professionals elected to executive offices in Columbia. At least forms might be filed on time.

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