Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has assured members of California's congressional delegation that the state will not use federal economic stimulus money earmarked for education to backfill the state's looming budget gap, according to a letter released this week.
"Let me assure you it is the intent of the governor that [these] funds allocated to the state will be dispersed quickly to local educational agencies . . . and will be spent quickly according to local needs," Schwarzenegger's education secretary, Glen W. Thomas, wrote in the letter. "It is the hope that these funds will immediately help prevent teacher layoffs."
But some educators fear that the declarations may go by the wayside if the state's finances decline further. The state is already projected to be $8 billion in the red next year, and if several funding propositions on the May ballot aren't approved by voters, that figure could nearly double.
"Our concern is with the state of California's budget, the May election and the June [budget] revise, they're going to come back behind the federal dollars and cut state spending on education, and the net [result] is we're going to lose out," said Matt Hill, an official with the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district is weighing layoffs of more than 8,500 employees to cut nearly $600 million from next year's budget.
"The federal government has stepped up and invested in education," Hill said. "California's government needs to do the same thing."
Educators pointed out that in the mid-1990s, the federal government increased special education funding, and California distributed the money to districts but then reduced the state's contribution to such programs. Their fears were compounded last month when the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office suggested doing something similar to deal with next year's budget shortfall.
California is not alone. Federal officials have grown increasingly concerned in recent weeks that several states facing budget shortfalls would circumvent the intent of the more than $100-billion education package, with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warning that he would "come down like a ton of bricks" on any state that defied him.
"We're holding back literally billions of dollars for the second round of funding," he said when he released the first installment, of $44 billion, last week. "States that aren't doing the right thing will basically eliminate themselves from competition."
Some state officials were pleased by Thomas' comments, which appeared in a letter to members of the California congressional delegation who had expressed concern about the fate of the funding.
"Those assurances are really good news for districts and for schools," said Hilary McLean, spokeswoman for state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "Supt. O'Connell does appreciate the governor clarifying that from his perspective, these funds go out to schools quickly and for their intent and purpose."
But lingering uncertainty has led some districts not to include the federal money in their budgets for the next school year.
"When I have the check, I'll count it, but not until then," said Ron Lebs, a deputy superintendent of the 51,000-student Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County.