A Hand in the ARRA Till?

By now, we have all heard (many of us dozens of times) about the intent of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, particularly as it relates to public education.  The goal of the economic stimulus bill was to make our schools whole, financially.  For those districts that were forced to cut budgets, eliminate programs, or delay the adoption of new textbooks or technology over the past two years, their woes are now supposed to be over.  Federal money (and I’m talking the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars) was intended to make up for those cuts.  School budget levels are to be restored to the highest of the past two years courtesy of the red-white-and-blue taxpayers.

That’s what is written in the law.  And that’s why the money is to go directly to the school districts.  The states serve merely as a pass-through for the dollars, a distribution checkpoint through which the feds can more effectively disseminate the dollars.  Money is not intended to go to state programs, nor are the states supposed to add any strings as to how it is funded.  SFSF is a lifeline to the school districts, and is designed to make up for their shortfalls (usually the result of previous state budget cuts).  Additional dollars, such as Title I, IDEA, and such also flow back directly into the districts, so we are supplementing and improving instruction on the ground, impacting the students we are trying to improve, rather than funding additional process and bureaucracy.
But something seems to have gotten lost along the way.  The Washington Post has a great story this AM about how the states are essentially looking to skim off the top of the SFSF, complete with a Mafia-laced quote about stimulus money “falling off the truck.”  The thinking here is relatively simple.  Yes, states are providing the LEAs the SFSF and related school improvement money as dictated under the stimulus bill.  But some are only doing so after schools give back some dollars to the county or to the state.  After all, while should the school district remain flush while other government agencies are suffering?  Why should the county pay its fair share into the schools (one of its primary obligations and the reason, in Virginia for instance, it collects property taxes) when the feds are issuing a blank check?
(As an aside, I must just say that WaPo has really raised its game when it comes to education policy reporting.  In recent months, the WaPo team has done some great work when it comes to capturing the world view and the local impact of ed policy, looking at key issues through both its federal/national lens and its local one.  And it only gets better when the WaPo editorial board and many of its columnists — I mean you Colby King — are covering these issues with great thought and regularity.)
Eduflack hopes that the examples laid out in WaPo this morning are exceptions to the rule, and not what we see happening around the country.  But I am enough of  a realist to know that this could very well become standard operating procedure.  Everybody wants a piece of the largest spending bill in town.  Everyone is hurting from the economic downturn.  So it shouldn’t surprise us that everyone wants a “taste” of what is intended for the school districts and for our students.
But officials who are acting on those wants should be ashamed of themselves.  Already, we are hearing stories of state legislatures that are looking to make deep, specific cuts to education spending because they know that the stimulus will make up the difference.  Already, we are hearing about states that are looking for “waivers” as to how they can spend their stimulus money, so they can redirect it to their preferred targets, rather than the students it was intended for.  And already we are now listening to tales of counties and localities looking to skim a little off the top so they can get a taste.  Reprehensible.
Education stimulus dollars are intended for education.  If we have heard anything that EdSec Arne Duncan has said or read anything ED has released in the guidance or related documents, it is that this is a one-time influx of cash.  Why is that important?  If a school district, county, or state makes a cut in anticipation of the ARRA money, they need to make up that cut next year or the following.  ARRA is not an open spigot of continuously flowing education dollars.  It is a one-time, stopgap funding act.  It is not intended to cover teacher salaries or offset core operating expenses or generally pay for the long-term operating expenses of a school district.  It is designed to fill the unexpected and unintended cuts our schools have faced in the past two years because of the economy, under the assumption that the localities and states will restore that funding soon, once the economy stabilizes and the state budget is in better shape.
That’s why so many are resistant to using ARRA to pay for teacher salaries and other such long-term obligations.  Once we get on that train, it is hard to get off and start walking on our own.  Stimulus money for teacher salaries becomes a long-term engagement, not a quick injection of funds.
At the end of the day, these stimulus dollars are intended to make sure that schools are spending on what they need in order to continue the learning process and move the needle on student achievement.  It is meant to end the logjam and the worry that has forced a district to delay a textbook adoption.  It is meant to loosen the pursestrings so that those hardware and software purchases that have been planned for years can be completed.  It is meant to place those supplemental learning materials in our low-performing classrooms, using this economic injection to provide an academic booster shot to students in need.
One of the greatest fears in town is that the stimulus money is not going to end up where it is intended.  That we are investing billions upon billions of dollars in our public schools, but won’t have anything to show for it.  That dollars are going to be thrown after process, rather than outcome.  That we will be investing in operations, rather than results.  Articles like these add fuel to that fire, and demonstrate the real need for strict federal oversight on how these funds are spent.  Simply offering technical assistance isn’t enough.  Perhaps it is time to revisit those intended NCLB SWAT teams, who will descend on school districts and make sure the money is spent as intended.  Those that do, continue to move forward.  Those that don’t, lose their dollars.  And those states or counties who try to undermine or circumvent the process face repercussions.
Education Trust has launched its Education Watch 2009 to keep a close eye on how the states are spending their money. (UPDATE: They are doing so by focusing on the results and outcomes.)  Perhaps we need similar watchdogs to oversee the LEAs, ensuring that money is spent as designated and that the layers of government that will touch ARRA will not be skimming dollars off the top before it reaches our students.
I recognize that ARRA represents an obscene amount of money when it comes to public school improvement.  I also know that, before the stimulus dollars, the feds were paying less than eight cents on every education dollar going into our public schools.  That means the vast majority of obligation for our schools rests with the states and localities.  That means the vast cost of our schools rests with the states and localities.  And that means the responsibility for results in our schools rests with states and localities.  The feds can provide ongoing booster shots of money and innovative grant pro
grams and a host of new ideas, but the heavy lifting, the real execution, and the improved results come from the states, localities, and schools themselves.  No matter whose name may be printed on the money or whose signatures may be on those initial checks. 

312 thoughts on “A Hand in the ARRA Till?

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