bonds unbound

Jobs bill clears way for $1.4 billion in school construction bonds

Here’s one way the jobs bill headed for the president’s desk today will affect New York City: it unfreezes more than $1 billion in school construction bonds the city needs to fund its capital plan.

The bonds were effectively frozen because of a significant flaw in last year’s federal stimulus bill, which set aside $22 billion over two years for school districts to sell interest-free bonds to fund school construction. As Pro Publica reported late last year, many banks refused to buy the bonds because they were funded by tax credits that investors found worthless.

The jobs bill the Senate passed today aims to solve that problem by using a direct subsidy, rather than a tax credit, to pay banks for the bonds. (The House passed a similar bill last month and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.)

New York City, like many school districts around the country, had delayed issuing any bonds because of this problem, according to the mayor’s preliminary budget plan released in January. In the mayor’s plan, the Office of Management and Budget noted that it expected Congress to revise the school construction bond program and predicted that when it did, the city would successfully be able to issue all $1.4 billion in bonds.

The city needs all of the funds provided by the school construction bonds, plus an additional $300 million from another federal bond program, in order to carry out all of the construction proposed in its five-year capital plan. The bonds fund a total of $1.7 billion of the city’s $11.3 billion capital plan, which was approved last year.

There’s no deadline for the city to issue the $699 million in bonds set aside for New York City in 2009 and the $664 million allocated for 2010, a spokeswoman for the federal Treasury Department said today, so the city’s delay in issuing the bonds won’t hurt its school construction plans.

Comptroller John Liu, who last month urged New York’s Congressional delegation to swap the direct subsidy for the tax credits in the bond program, today called the Senate’s bill “a tremendous victory for our schoolkids.”

home sweet home

‘Finally! Something useful’ or a dangerous mistake? Detroiters respond to city’s housing deal for teachers

PHOTO: Detroit Land Bank Authority
This home on Harvard Road was up for auction the week after Detroit announced a half-off-on-city-owned housing deal for teachers.

Friday’s announcement that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter, or parochial schools — will get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority stirred a lot of discussion.

Some of our commenters on Facebook had high hopes for the deal:

But one commenter wondered if it’s the city of Detroit that’s actually getting the best deal, not the employees — or other people seeking to buy homes in the city:

And others argued that people who already live in Detroit won’t benefit from this deal:

Still, some readers appear to be ready to move — and have even picked homes to bid on (though not necessarily from the Land Bank Authority)!

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.