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No Child Left Behind Act Becomes Political Football

The question of whether Nevada and other states have let millions of dollars in "use it or lose it" federal education funds languish in the bank has turned into a political football.

A report by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year detailed that $124 million in federal education funding reverted to the U.S. Treasury in 2003, with $700,000 of that sent back from Nevada.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2002, fueled a 60-percent increase in overall education funding. But those dollars have come with strings, which resulted in spending delays as states hurry to bring their policies and procedures in line with accompanying federal requirements.

Partisan bickering over the meaning of the unspent federal funds followed, with some Republicans emphasizing the backlog, Democrats questioning its significance and education officials scratching their heads over the fuss.

When states fail to spend federal education funding by the deadline, the money reverts to the U.S. Treasury. Every dollar is allocated for a specific purpose and leftover funds cannot cannot be re-routed to another educational program.

Republicans have latched onto the apparent backlog of education dollars. In a January report prepared by the staff of Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, federal education spending was compared to "pumping gas into a flooded engine."

According to his committee's report, the percentage of education money waiting to be spent has been steadily increasing.

In July 2001, states had 9.7 percent of allocated education dollars still available for use. In 2002 the number was 11 percent and it grew to 14.4 percent last year. As of June 24, states still had 20 percent of total education funding -- $6.9 billion -- waiting to be used, Holly said.

Democrats made light of GOP questions about the unspent money.

In an analysis released Monday, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., responded to the committee report, noting that every federal agency has unspent funds, including Homeland Security, Agriculture and Transportation.

"The Department of Defense leads the way, with $52.2 billion in unspent funds at the end of 2003," Miller said in a written statement. "Are Republican leaders suggesting that our soldiers in Iraq have too many resources?"

The federal dispute captured the attention of Nevada's Republican delegation, which also raised questions about federal education funding and how quickly the allocated dollars are reaching students.

In January, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., expressed his concern that Nevada had $26 million in leftover federal funds for fiscal years 2000-02.

And during a June visit to Las Vegas, Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., put the total amount of unspent education dollars at $92 million.

State and local education officials say they're eager to deflate the myth of the unspent millions -- especially before the 2005 Legislature, when lawmakers will be asked once again to increase funding for schools.

Each year about a half-percent of Nevada's allocated education funds go unspent and revert to federal control, said Doug Thunder, deputy superintendent of administrative and fiscal services for the Nevada Department of Education.

Nevada has $6.4 million in federal education dollars that must be spent by Sept. 30 -- the end of the federal fiscal year and the expiration date for the various grants, some of which were originally allocated two years ago.

Of those funds, $4.7 million has been obligated and will be paid out by the deadline, Thunder said. That leaves $1.6 million in funds waiting to be claimed, Thunder said.

The largest portion of the unspent funding is $1.1 million earmarked for assessments and testing, Thunder said. There is also $382,305 remaining in special education grants and $22,822 for adult education programs.

While the assessments grant was allocated two years ago, the state education department couldn't begin using the money until the 2003 Legislature approved the plan, Thunder said.

Most of the grant balances are at zero by the time the deadline arrives, Thunder said. The misunderstanding, Thunder said, is that Nevada still has years to spend much of the money.

Neighboring states also have yet to spend some of the federal money.

California failed to use $1.68 million in allocated funds and Arizona had $3 million revert to the federal coffers.

State education departments are prohibited by federal law from keeping grant money in their own accounts for more than three days. That means the funds are withdrawn only when individual school districts notify the state that they are ready to accept the transfer, Thunder said.

"The majority of grants are for multiple years," Thunder said. "We never draw down the entire amount at once and I can't see that anyone would want us to do that."

A Clark County School District official also downplayed the significance of the questions about the unspent funds.

"It's important that taxpayers have accurate information as to how their dollars are being managed," said Walt Rulffes, deputy superintendent of operations for the district.

"It's like the fable that teachers only work six hours a day, when in reality it's probably closer to 10 or 12 hours a day. If something gets repeated often enough it becomes part of the dialogue even if there's no fact to it."

— Emily Richmond
Las Vegas Sun


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