Just say no: Oklahoma considers rejection of federal ed funding

Dive Brief:

  • A proposal in the Oklahoma State Legislature by Republican state Sen. David Bullard would create a 10-year plan to phase out the use of federal pre-K-12th grade funding in the state.
  • The two-page bill calls for the Oklahoma State Department of Education to develop a plan that projects state funds needed to replace federal allocations.
  • While rarely put into practice, states can turn away federal education funding, experts said. However, they caution that policymakers should consider financial, educational and legal impacts — particularly the effects on school systems’ compliance with civil rights laws — when making such decisions.

Dive Insight:

“The U.S. Constitution is very straightforward about education — this is a state power protected by the 10th Amendment and the federal overreach is alive and well in our education system,” Bullard said in an Oklahoma Senate news release. The lawmaker did not respond to requests for an interview.

Schools would not lose money as a result of the legislation, Bullard said in the news release. The bill does not detail how the state would make up the federal revenue. The bill could be considered during the state’s 2023 legislative session, which runs Monday through May 26.

Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has also cast doubt on the need for certain federal funding, according to a Feb. 1 article by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Walters does not favor turning away all federal funding but wants to analyze programs that carry requirements for instruction that the state opposes.

“What I want to ensure is that Oklahomans — this legislative body, parents, teachers around the state — we’re making decisions on what’s best for kids. Not [President] Joe Biden and the federal government, but us,” the council quotes Walters as saying during a budget hearing last week.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Oklahoma received $787.3 million in federal education funding in FY 2020. The state contribution that year was $3.7 billion, and local revenue added $3 billion. In total, education revenues were $7.6 billion.

According to the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, the state ranked last in per-student spending compared to surrounding states in FY 2020.

Many federal grant programs carry specific rules for compliance at the state and local levels. If school systems are out of compliance with those rules, federal education offices will work with them on a plan toward full compliance. In worst-case scenarios, the U.S. Department of Education can withhold funds until the rules are followed.

Although federal revenue makes up on average only about 8% to 10% of a district’s budget, states rarely if ever turn away federal funding because it can be hard to make up that deficit, said Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab.

“Even the 8[%] to 10% from the federal government turns out to be a lot of money that districts aren’t aren’t willing to walk away from,” Roza said.

But there are examples of when school systems refuse federal money or are concerned complying with federal rules tied to funding would be too onerous. For example, some mostly small, rural districts rejected COVID-19 emergency funding  because they opposed safety protocols, according to Roza and news articles.

Discussions about eliminating federal education allocations should include researching why the funded programs may be problematic, Roza said. Policymakers should also clearly understand a state’s responsibility to support civil rights protections for certain students, such as those with disabilities, if federal funding is rejected, she said.

“Even the 8[%] to 10% from the federal government turns out to be a lot of money that districts aren’t aren’t willing to walk away from.”

Marguerite Roza

Director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab

Julia Martin, legislative director with Brustein & Manasevit, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm specializing in education, workforce and grants management, said state and local acceptance of federal education funding typically comes with conditions and requirements. 

“That can be a good trade-off or it can be a not-so-great trade-off,” Martin said.

Certain civil rights obligations are nonnegotiable regardless of federal allocations. For instance, special education advocates have said the federal government has never fully funded its share of the cost of educating students with disabilities, although states and districts are required to follow rules under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Additionally, when public and private schools accept federal funding, they have an obligation to provide a nondiscriminatory school setting under laws like Title IX, Martin said. 

One of the reasons local and state governments may have been reluctant to eliminate federal funding is because of the administrative, financial and legal hurdles required to determine how to maintain services and supports to protected classes of students and what would no longer be required, Martin said.

“They can certainly turn down the funds. They are welcome to do that, but unraveling those obligations is going to take some time,” Martin said.

This article originally appeared in www.k12dive.com

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