Is it too early in the year to already assemble a list of overused words? How about words we misuse in order to get attention? I don’t know about you, but Eduflack is already sick-to-death of the term “shovel-ready.” Across the nation, companies, organizations, elected officials, and individuals are seeking to take full advantage of the pending economic stimulus package. “Shovel-ready” has become the term de jour. The thinking is simple. If there is a trillion dollars to be spent on infrastructure projects, we want to make sure “our project” is ready to go from the start, able to take the money now and make an immediate impact. Our projects are shovel ready. Heck, we may even offer a couple of jobs to hold those shovels. We can break ground right now and start spending the federal dollars today.
When the dust settles on the economic stimulus package this month or the next (probably next), public education is likely to get its share of funding. School construction will come first. Technology and Internet access will be there too. Instructional materials will get their due, and specific special education efforts may get their portion of the education pie as well.
Just check out today’s USA Today, where Greg Toppo looks at school districts looking to get their piece of federal stimulus relief — www.usatoday.com/news/education/2009-01-12-school-stimulus_N.htm
But as we look at an infusion of addition federal spending on K-12 education — whether it be on bricks-and-mortar infrastructure (school construction), instructional infrastructure (books and materials), or human infrastructure (teachers and teacher development) — should we be prioritizing programs that are simply shovel-ready? Should we look to fund those initiatives that are ready to accept our checks today, like a bad infomercial, or should we make sure that those potentially hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on efforts that are worthy of such funding?
As we all line up to tap the overflowing funding keg that is the federal economic stimulus package, we should set some clear measures for funding. How many students will be affected? What is the expected impact? What is the return on investment? What is the research base to demonstrate funding-worthiness?
Yes, we will be spending significant dollars on school construction. In doing so, we should make sure the dollars are getting into the communities that need the funding the most. Are we building new schools in our crumbling inner cities or in those districts with the best lobbyists or the most federal juice? But school construction is what it is.
The bigger issue is how we spend the rest of the available funds. Investments in instructional and human K-12 infrastructure must focus on ROI. That means we won’t necessarily see the economic impact this month or this year. But we need to look for long-term ROI. How do we increase student achievement and graduation numbers? How do we ensure that all students have the knowledge and skills to succeed in the 21st century workforce? How do we provide teachers the pre-service and in-service instruction they need to deliver the high-impact instruction we expect of all our classrooms?
Take STEM education, for instance. There are real, tangible, on-the-ground STEM efforts out there that are both shovel-ready and funding-worthy. There are STEM schools that can be constructed in cities and districts immediately. There are K-12 programs, particularly in the secondary grades, that need the books, technology, and learning tools today to maximize opportunities And there are teachers who need both the PD and the financial incentive (such as differential pay) to stand as effective instructors in STEM classrooms. STEM efforts are shovel-ready. But they are also funding-worthy. We know that STEM programs have direct impact on the economy. They prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow. They prep teachers for the teaching opportunities of today. And they serve as the strongest linkages we have between effective K-12 education and stronger, more robust economic opportunities.
There’s nothing wrong with those looking to take advantage of the economic stimulus package, even those who are preparing to make the pending federal legislation their personal post-Christmas Christmas trees, hanging their individual funding needs upon its branches. That is the American way.
And our schools are truly suffering. The majority of states have cut or will soon cut K-12 budgets. Some states are asking teachers to take pay cuts or benefit reductions. And just last week, schools in Detroit were asking for public donations of toilet paper and other basics just to keep their doors open. Times are tough, and the stimulus package is likely to give a needed financial boost to K-12 systems throughout the nation. Again, look at Toppo’s piece. School districts are doing whatever it takes to keep funding for public education as level as possible, even if that means lining up behind the banks and the auto companies.
We just need to remember that the stimulus is not intended as a bailout. It is meant to serve as an investment in our nation. It is meant to create jobs and strengthen economic opportunity, both now and in the future. For our school systems, that means it shouldn’t go to the first program in line or the first idea that offers to create a job or make us feel better about ourselves. We need to focus on the investment side of the equation, ensuring that these new federal dollars are going into efforts that will make a difference — both in the short and long term — and can demonstrate real ROI. If K-12 dollars are in short supply, shouldn’t we make sure that new dollars are being spent on worthy efforts? Let’s eliminate shovel-ready from our vocabulary (at least of K-12 vocabulary). It’s time to practice saying “funding worthy.”