Some assail Patrick’s diversion of education funds

In a move to balance a budget facing a $3.5 billion deficit, Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed diverting hundreds of millions of Chapter 70 education funds—upon which public school districts survive—to other parts of the state budget, and then backfill the deficit with $412 million in State Fiscal Stabilization Funds (SFSF) earmarked for education purposes. To some education advocates on the federal level, the transfer would exemplify their worst fears about the fate of education money in the federal stimulus bill.

“Technically it’s probably within the law but it’s certainly contrary to the spirit of the law and to congressional intent,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, the nation’s primary coalition of large urban public school districts. “It’s going to be very difficult for local schools to pursue reform when the state simply takes funds out of one pocket and puts them back in another pocket… the money is just evaporating.”

“Given that the governor has already cut $1.3 billion from the budget since October, there’s very little room for other cuts in the budget,” explained Cyndi Roy, spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance. “It went to close the budget gap,” she said of the $412 million in SFS Funds. “It all goes into the budget to balance general spending [for the state]. The other option was to cut education.”

While Roy would not say unequivocally that there was no other places in the budget to find money or cut expenses, she emphasized the Governor’s view that there were few if any other options than to dip into the education funding.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of other areas to go to,” she said.

In a letter to governors across the country sent April 1, Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan specified the reform results he would like to see documented in return for the SFS Funds:

“While the Stabilization Fund will help relieve our immediate economic crisis,” wrote Duncan, “it is also intended to boost student achievement, so to access this money, we seek your commitment to the following four essential areas of reform: [improving teacher effectiveness; progressing toward college and career-ready standards]; improving achievement in low-performing schools by providing intensive support and effective interventions in schools that need them the most; and gathering information to improve student learning, teacher performance, and college and career-readiness through enhanced data systems that track progress.”

A further $168 million of the SFS Funds are reserved to prevent cuts in FY 2010, but so far the state has not identified any part of the funds—which are supposed to be spent in the fiscal years 2009, 2010, and 2011—that would go toward reform. SFS Funds are the most flexible of all the education money in the federal stimulus, and at the same time the most vaguely defined by the federal government. If the state chose to, the money could be used for teacher development, classroom materials, or even school construction, as long as it speaks to the goals set out by Duncan.

The state legislature does, however, have to approve Patrick’s budget and any spending of the funds before they can actually be distributed. Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and state Rep. Marty Walz, Boston’s two seats on the legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, could not be reached for comment by press time.