House Republicans are using new figures showing $16.8 billion in unspent education funds to argue that federal education funding has increased so rapidly under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that states are having trouble spending it all. Democrats counter by saying Republican leaders are using accounting “gimmicks” to mislead the public about education financing.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Budget Services office, states are sitting on more than half a billion dollars ($526.9 million) in unspent federal education funds appropriated during the Clinton administration, before NCLB even was enacted. States collectively have $16.8 billion in unspent funding to date, the budget report says, including $2.7 billion that has been available for at least two years.

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    Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, compared the states’ situation to an engine being flooded with gas.

    “These figures confirm we are increasing federal education spending more quickly than states can actually spend the money,” Boehner said. “The system can only absorb so much new money at once. We’ve literally flooded the system with cash, and it’s time to start focusing on improving student achievement instead.”

    The ranking Democrat on the House education committee, Rep. George Miller of California, called Boehner’s claims nothing more than partisan politics in an election year.

    “The Republicans are trying to hide the fact that they and President Bush have shortchanged America’s schools by $27 billion by making the false argument that states have not yet spent the money that Congress already has provided,” Miller said. The $27 billion figure marks the difference between the amount authorized for Title I and other programs under NCLB and the amount actually funded by Congress since the law was enacted.

    As Congressional Republicans and Education Department officials know, Miller said, states are allowed more than two years to spend their federal education funds. States often use these funds to finance long-term projects, including test and curriculum development and professional development for teachers, principals, and other staff.

    Often the costs for these types of expenses are not billed for months, or even years, after the services are purchased, Miller added. As a result, the states have “unexpended balances” of federal education money because they cannot draw down funds until the bills come due.

    “The [Bush] administration and Committee Chairman Boehner are using nothing more than a bookkeeping gimmick to try to distract the public from their broken promises for education,” said Miller. “Counting these unexpended balances as available money is no different than counting all the money in your checkbook on payday as unobligated–money that you know you will need to pay the mortgage, rent, food, medical care, clothing, and other real costs.”

    Using this same faulty logic, Miller said, every single federal agency has unspent funds. The Department of Defense reportedly leads the way, with $52.2 billion in unspent funds at the end of 2003. “Are Republicans leaders suggesting that our soldiers in Iraq have too many resources?” Miller asked.

    State leaders charged with spending the funds, and the organizations that represent them, agreed with Miller’s comments.

    In a clear demonstration of election-year politics, the Bush administration and its supporters are using the issue of unspent funds to disguise the fact that NCLB is costing more to implement than anyone anticipated and is a substantial drain on school and local coffers, said Jordan Cross, manager of advocacy for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

    “It’s a little premature to be asking why there is still money left over,” Cross said. Republican leaders are “trying to draw some connection between unspent funds and NCLB when, in fact, there isn’t one. … We’ve always had unspent funds in education. It’s like comparing apples to oranges.”

    In theory, Cross said, Congress is supposed to approve spending levels for the following year by Oct. 1. When that money becomes available in July of the following year, schools have 27 months to decide what to do with it. Then, he said, they have 33 months to actually spend the funds as earmarked.

    Just ask state leaders whether they have too many funds, Cross said, noting that an independent analysis prepared for the Hawaii Department of Education estimates that Hawaii is more than $30 million behind on money needed to achieve NCLB compliance.

    Fourteen other states, part of a consortium organized by the council, plan to come out with similar reports before election time, he said.