Gov. McDonnell seeks stimulus money, despite earlier criticism

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; B01

RICHMOND -- For more than a year, Robert F. McDonnell has been critical of the federal stimulus package, arguing that it should have been more focused on creating jobs and spurring the economy.

But that hasn't stopped Virginia's new Republican governor from lobbying aggressively for a piece of President Obama's $4.35 billion Race to the Top education program, which is funded by the Recovery Act.

Some of the money could be spent on new jobs, but much of it would go to developing curriculum, expanding a database of student records and training existing employees. Virginia applied for $350 million and expects to learn this week whether it is a finalist for a grant.

McDonnell said during his campaign that he would accept federal stimulus money if elected, but Democrats have accused him of hypocrisy because he criticized the Recovery Act as a candidate.

"It's hypocrisy. There's nothing else to call it,'' said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who serves as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "Republicans like Bob McDonnell have been particularly critical of pieces [of the Recovery Act] that wouldn't create jobs, and now he's asking for that money anyway. You can't have it both ways. If you are against something, be against it."

McDonnell said in an interview last week that he has consistently backed Obama's education reform initiatives and insisted that Virginia receive a portion of the stimulus money.

"I thought the stimulus package ought to have been done differently but, as long as it was there, that Virginia ought to have its share," he said.

The stimulus creates a challenge for McDonnell, a fiscal conservative and one of the Republican Party's rising stars. He has chastised Democrats in Congress for their increased spending. But he is searching for money to help offset his state's $4 billion budget shortfall.

Charges of hypocrisy

In February, which marked the one-year anniversary of the Recovery Act, the DNC began targeting Republicans across the nation who opposed the stimulus legislation but then welcomed the money.

So far, 120 governors and members of Congress have made the Hypocrisy Hall of Fame, including McDonnell and some fellow Virginians, Reps. Eric Cantor, Frank R. Wolf and Robert W. Goodlatte. Many are lawmakers who voted against the Recovery Act; Democrats accuse them of later taking credit for stimulus-funded projects in their districts.

McDonnell has been consistent in his comments about the stimulus over the past year -- saying, whenever asked, that he would accept the federal money but that the state should not balance its budget using money from the Recovery Act.

"The money is coming from Virginia taxpayers. Frankly, it's coming from the children of Virginia taxpayers," McDonnell said in February 2009. "I think we ought to take it to the maximum degree as possible."

The only stimulus funding he opposed was $125 million for unemployed Virginia workers, which he said would lead to higher taxes for businesses once the money was exhausted. The GOP-controlled House of Delegates rejected the funding last spring.

Late last month, at his first meeting with Virginia's congressional delegation, McDonnell urged the lawmakers to help him secure stimulus funds to help build a Rolls-Royce aerospace manufacturing plant in Prince George County, near Petersburg.

He also said he would support extending the stimulus legislation by six months to help states cover rising health-care costs, and he announced that Virginia will receive $24 million in stimulus money to advance health information technology, funding that was requested by his predecessor, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine.

"He's taken a look at the reality of life,'' said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "He's faced with having to deal with this situation, and he's taking money how he can get it."

Virginia applied for $350 million through the Race to the Top program Jan. 15, the day before McDonnell was inaugurated. The application, which was a joint effort by Kaine and McDonnell, included letters of support from groups that represent teachers, school boards, principals and superintendents, and colleges.

McDonnell spoke to Obama about the application recently when he sat at the president's table at a black-tie White House dinner. Virginia Education Secretary Gerard Robinson talked up the state when he appeared with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a Falls Church school in January. McDonnell and Robinson have each placed several calls to Duncan updating him on Virginia's progress.

The $4.35 billion Race to the Top program was enacted last year as part of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan, marking one of the largest federal expenditures ever on the nation's public schools. It uses grants to encourage school systems to raise academic standards, improve testing, make better use of data to track student achievement and do more to fix failing schools, among other goals. States are encouraged to enact laws that promote the establishment of charter schools and other innovative programs.

A chance to create jobs?

The $350 million requested by Virginia would be split between the state and the 117 local education agencies that have asked for funding. Money would be spent on charter schools and low-performing schools, finding and retaining teachers, and improving student assessment, among other purposes. All of Northern Virginia's school systems signed on.

"This is really not about creating jobs,'' said Betty Lambdin, director of the office of teaching and learning at the Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers. "This is really about education reform."

But Robinson and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright, who oversaw the application, said there are plenty of opportunities for the money to create jobs, particularly at charter schools or low-performing schools. "It can definitely be about jobs," Robinson said.

McDonnell said he hopes the state's grant application is helped by his proposals to expand the number of charter schools and to create virtual schools, in which students learn outside traditional classrooms, and laboratory schools, which partner with colleges.

McDonnell's bills have not received legislative approval, and it is unlikely they will by the time the Race to the Top finalists are announced this week.

About 40 states applied for first-round grant money. Grants will be awarded in April and September. Obama announced at a Fairfax County school in January that he will award an additional $1.35 billion to schools in another round of Race to the Top funding this year. Those applications are due in June.

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