O'Reilly repeated bogus White House stat on education funding

››› ››› GABE WILDAU

On his nationally syndicated radio show, FOX News Channel host Bill O'Reilly used a bogus statistic propagated by the Bush administration intended to combat critics who claim the administration has failed to devote sufficient resources to K-12 education.

On the August 5 edition of The Radio Factor, O'Reilly claimed, "So much [federal education] money has poured into the states that they can't spend it, that most states are going to have to give back to the Treasury Department between 20 and 12 percent of the federal money coming in."

The truth is that the law allows states at least 27 months to spend federal education money, and states spent 99.5 percent of federal K-12 education money allocated for the most recent year for which all relevant deadlines for state expenditures of federal education money have passed.

A January 15 memorandum from the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) exposed the statistic O'Reilly cited as misleading. After noting that "the White House and the Department [of Education] have referenced the unspent funds as evidence that additional funding to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act is not needed," the memo presented a detailed explanation of the bureaucratic obstacles states must traverse in order to receive yearly federal education money from the Department -- obstacles that often require several years to overcome.

The U.S. Department of Education cannot disburse money to states in lump sums. Rather, the federal Cash Management Improvement Act mandates "that a state obligates and/or expends federal dollars before it can be reimbursed." That means that for long-term projects, states often receive federal money only at the end, when the bill comes due. That's one reason states have 27 months (and sometimes more) to "obligate" federal funds, i.e., commit to spending a specific sum on a particular program.

But each federal education program -- e.g., No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) -- includes its own set of detailed federal regulations and requirements for state education administrators to navigate before they can receive federal money. The NCSL memo reported, "State appointed and elected officials from around the country have reported being so overwhelmed with the [new] requirements of NCLB that they do not have the resources to focus on some of the existing and on-going programs in ESEA and IDEA."

Finally, the memo noted that for the most recent fiscal year for which federal funds are no longer available for disbursement, only "about one-half of one percent (0.5%) of K-12 funds available that fiscal year was returned to the U.S. Treasury ($150 million of $30 billion in federal K-12 appropriations)." Though the NCSL memo doesn't name a specific year, matching budget data in a press release from the Democratic staff of the House Education and Workforce Committee suggests that year was FY 1998.*

O'Reilly made a similar claim about education funding during a July 27 panel discussion, asserting that federal underfunding of education "is nonsense."

*Correction: When this item was first published, it incorrectly attributed the assertion that fiscal year 1998 was "the most recent fiscal year for which federal funds are no longer available" to the NCSL memo cited for the rest of the facts in the item. In fact, this memo refers only to "the most recent closeout of funds" but does not name the specific fiscal year for which the closeout occurred. A press release from the House Education and Workforce Committee's Democratic staff, however, uses almost precisely the same budget numbers ("Only $155 million of $30 billion") and names FY 1998 as the applicable year, so MMFA concluded that the two documents referred to the same year. [back to article]

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Education, Education Funding
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