How Do We Disperse Ed Stimulus Dollars?

By now, we’ve all hear the numbers.  Under the state stabilization fund, $53.4 billion for our governors.  For Title I, $10 billion.  Special education gets $12.2 billion.  The School Improvement Fund, $3 billion.  Head Start comes in a cool billion dollars.  With $250 million for state data systems and $200 million more for the Teacher Incentive Fund.  And then there are the subcategories.

There is no getting around it.  This is a massive injection of new cash into our nation’s public education system.  With a sweep of the pen this week, President Obama has more than doubled federal investment in K-12 education, providing our nation’s governors and their chief state school officers with enormous power as to how these new piggy banks will be broken into and what new local buckets will receive the shiny gold coins.
But it begs an enormously important question.  How will the funds be dispersed?  The buzz around the education community is that money will be distributed quickly, with initial chunks going out to the states before the end of the summer.  At the same time, we know that the U.S. Department of Education has yet to staff up, at least in terms of an undersecretary, deputy secretary, and virtually all of its assistant secretaries.
Some of this money will simply be spent using existing funding formulae.  The federal government and the states already have clear systems for dispersing and allocating Title I and special education (IDEA) funds.  Those systems will hold when it comes to getting the $12.2 billion in sped money and $10 billion in additional Title I funds out to the districts it is meant to stimulate.
But what of the state stabilization fund?  Does it require a new structure and a new relationship between the federal government and the states?  Does it require specific rubrics for tracking how funds are spent, ensuring they are not supplanting existing federal dollars and are delivering return on investment when it comes to both stabilizing the financial situation of our schools and boosting student achievement?  Do we even have a mechanism for the feds to cut these stabilization fund checks to the states in quick order?
One assumes that each governor will need to appoint an individual (or an office) in the state to serve as the point person for negotiation with the U.S. Department of Education on the stabilization fund.  Most think this point person will be the chief state school officer.  But in some states, we know that is likely not going to be the case.  Such a point person could reside in the governor’s office, the state board of education, or even the economic development office.  It could even be an outside consultant or group.  There is no one-size-fits-all implementation model here, at least not one evident in the new federal funding structure.  So how does it happen, and how does it happen so quickly?
In recent years, the closest model we have to implementing such an effort was the establishment of the Reading First funding program, as the previous Administration looked to quickly disperse $1 billion a year in new reading dollars.  Moving at lightening speed, it still took nearly a year to establish those state relationships, gain documents from the states on how the funds would be spent, and then write the checks and get them out there.  That was a billion dollars, and the funding was staggered as states tried to get their plans in order (some took well more than a year to get approved work plans in there, some moved more quickly).
And we saw how successful the implementation of that program was.  Moving too quickly, we opened the system up to abuse and the perception of mis-spending and mis-directed priorities.  Originally, ED promised swat teams prepared to go into those school districts receiving RF money, ready to evaluate if the money was being spent as intended and prepared to pull the funding if it was not.  Maybe we’ll follow through on the promise with state stabilization funding squads.
Now we are talking about a scope more than 50 times in size, on an implementation far faster than RF ever envisioned.  Maybe the RF model — and its means for dispersing funds to the states — is they system on which to build this new effort.  What is clear is there is a lot of work ahead for both ED and the states to make sure this economic stimulus money.  Everyone is waiting see the guidelines for new federal spending and how the money flow will be managed and monitored.  We need to move quickly, yes.  But we also need to move smartly.  
The stimulus package makes a major statement with regard to future investment in K-12 education and public school improvement.  It restructures the role of localities, the states, and the federal government in the process.  And it sets clear priorities for the pathways we must take if we are to make lasting improvement and invest this money as intended.  
Eduflack is a results guy, no question about it.  Process always takes a backseat for me, particularly when we have outcomes in the driver’s seat.  But this stimulus package — and the state stabilization fund — cry out for a clear, comprehensive, closely monitored process that ensures swift action, efficient spending, and documentable return on investment.  How do we make sure money is getting to the schools and students who need it the most?  How do we make sure we are using money to supplement existing programs, and not merely replacing existing state funding commitments?  How do we make sure we are having a true impact, beyond the dollar tally?
As more and more details on federal stimulus funding become available, we need to ensure we are getting such details on the process.  Now is not the time to follow a “trust us” philosophy.  We’ve all seen where that has gotten us before.

256 thoughts on “How Do We Disperse Ed Stimulus Dollars?

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