The state’s permanent school fund, which spins off money for textbooks and the like each year, has recaptured billions of dollars after a frightening downward spiral this spring.
The fund now stands at about $22 billion – after plummeting to less than $16 billion. The previous peak had been about $25 billion, said State Board of Education Member David Bradley.
Trouble is, the increase in the fund may produce no increase at all in education spending, Bradley lamented. Indeed, he said, the real beneficiaries of the fund often are the state legislature and its priorities outside education.
“The money does go to public education – but every dollar that comes from the school fund is one dollar less goes into education from other coffers,” Bradley said.
He added: “We have a love-hate relationship with the legislature.”
No wonder, given the odd power-sharing arrangement over the school fund. The state school board, with a little help from the constitution, decides how much of the fund can be spent each year. The product of that decision — a percentage — is called the “available school fund” for a period of two years.
But the board has no say in how to spend the money – that’s the legislature’s business. The nature of politics being what it is, legislators naturally want as much of the permanent school fund as they can get. Sure, they have to spend the money on textbooks or other school matters — but that just frees up other money to spend on transportation or crime or border security. And in a state where most everything goes somewhat underfinanced, any skimping on schools won’t get undue notice.
That leaves the board in the awkward role of gatekeeper over a fund over which they cannot spend. What makes it doubly frustrating is that the guard-dog role is the only board power enshrined in the constitution — everything else, as Bradley put it, is subject to "the whim of the legislature." The board cut the available school fund to just 2.5 percent of the total for the current biennial. The economic downturn did the rest: The fund balance fell so low its 10-year performance triggered a constitutional provision freezing all allocations.
Of course, two can play the gatekeeper game, as did the legislature when it cut the school board’s most recent request for textbook money by 15 percent.
Now with the fund again relatively flush, two board of education members said they likely would vote to restart payments to the legislature from the school fund at their regular November meeting. What happens to the money after that is quite out of their hands.