Higher-ed group blasts use of stimulus money

Higher Education Advocates Protest Use of Stimulus Funds

By Peter Schworm, Boston Globe Staff

June 4, 2009

A Massachusetts higher education advocacy group filed a federal complaint yesterday against the Patrick administration, contending that state officials are spending stimulus money meant for colleges and universities to bridge the state’s general budget deficit.

The Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, known as PHENOM, argues that the state is sidestepping provisions in the federal stimulus law by using money earmarked for education elsewhere.

The Patrick administration has received a waiver from the US Education Department allowing Massachusetts to avoid requirements of the stimulus bill, which urges states to maintain current levels of education spending for the next two years.

With the waiver, the state can spend as much as it sees fit on higher education in the fiscal year that begins next summer. Critics say that because state officials are front-loading the stimulus funds and steering them toward other priorities, higher education will be shortchanged. “This will set us up for disaster,” said Max Page, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a leader of the lobbying group. “What they’re essentially doing is digging a deeper hole.”

Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for state Education Secretary Paul Reville, said the group’s criticisms were off-base and that steep revenue shortfalls are forcing state officials to spend a significant portion of the federal money now.

“These are extraordinarily difficult budget times,” he said. “We have to worry about today. The immediate goal is stabilizing the budget situation we’re in.”

Palumbo said he did not think the complaint had merit, given that federal officials had signed off on the state’s spending blueprint. The federal waiver was granted because the state plans to spend as much on education next year as it did this year, as measured by percentage of state revenue.

Under Governor Deval Patrick’s current plan, the state would spend $412 million of $990 million in federal funds earmarked for education this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Overall, the state is slated to receive $1.88 billion for education by 2011.

Several states – including California, Illinois, Oregon, and Utah – have already exhausted their stabilization funds for this year and next, leaving no money for 2010-2011, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Critics said the proposal is “laying the groundwork for massive cuts and massive fee hikes in public higher education” that would force state colleges and universities to increase student costs.

“The state will invest less, and students and their parents will pay more,” said Alex Kulenovic, president of the advocacy group.

In March, Patrick announced plans to distribute $162 million in stimulus money among public colleges and universities, helping soften fee increases slated to go into effect this summer. The plans require legislative approval.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com . © Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.