Is Stimulus Stimulating Our Schools?

Back in March, we heard how our public schools were in desperate need of the quick injection of cash made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  We heard how the $55 billion in new education spending would be quickly distributed to the districts, with the majority of State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars distributed this spring, Title I and IDEA dollars quickly moving to the states through formulas, and the remainder of the SFSF funds getting out there this summer, after the states’ stimulus plans were approved by the U.S. Department of Education.  To some, all that is left to disseminate is the $5 billion or so available through Race to the Top and the Innovation Fund.

Originally, the money was supposed to go to immediate and one-time funding needs.  We thought the dollars would go into textbooks and computers and the purchase of “stuff.”  But according to the Association of American Publishers, spending in the school publishing market is down 24 percent for the first six months of the year, compared to last year.  Much of this can be attributed to California’s budget woes, but it seems most states and districts simply aren’t spending, either because they don’t have the dollars or they don’t have the approved budgets.
We’ve also heard how the money had to get into the states immediately to avoid teacher layoffs.  Although the money wasn’t intended to pay long-term costs like salaries, exceptions were made to ensure that teachers stayed on the job.  We heard about the need in Georgia, where they are talking two-week furloughs.  South Carolina said not taking the stimulus money would cost the state thousands of teacher slots.  But here we stand today with little evidence that the economy has cost teachers their jobs … and even less evidence that ARRA funding helped states avoid it.
The simple fact of the matter is it is hard to find ARRA having a real impact on school districts yet.  We aren’t hearing about teachers being paid or long-delayed textbook adoptions going through because it just isn’t happening.  If the stimulus intended to have an immediate impact on our schools, it isn’t showing itself.  If we expected to see a trickle-down from the feds to the states to school districts in need, there is no trickle.  In fact, it doesn’t seem like the spigot is on at all.
Each month, ED provides an accounting of how education stimulus dollars are being spent by the states.  So let’s look at the big board.  ARRA provides $55 billion in education spending.  As of August 1, $12.4 billion has been distributed to the states.  More than 77 percent of that high-need money is still sitting in the Treasury, untouched by the states as we head into the 2009-2010 school year.  Thats $42.7 billion in education money that the states haven’t tapped yet.
When we take a closer look, the numbers are even more disturbing:
* In Florida, they still have $2.9 billion of their $3.1 billion available
* In Georgia, $1.5 billion of their $1.7 billion is still available
* In Illinois, $1.2 billion of a total $2.4 billion is still available (so the home team has figured out how to spend half of what they have coming to them)
* In Louisiana, $816 million of the possible $840 million is still there
* In Michigan, as Detroit Public Schools prepare for bankruptcy, $1.4 billion of their $1.9 billion is available
* In New Jersey, $1.2 billion of a total $1.5 billion is available
* New York’s $3.8 billion is relatively untapped, with $3.7 billion still available
* Despite all of their state budget problems, Ohio still has $1.9 billion of their $2.1 billion in federal education dollars available
* Similarly, Pennsylvania still has $677 million of its $750 million unclaimed, as they continue to work through the state budget
* In Texas, $4.4 billion of the $4.6 billion is still available
Even for California, the poster child for state budget woes, there is still $1.9 billion of the possible $6.7 billion available.  These are all states with real education needs, particularly in their urban areas, and real opportunities with federal stimulus dollars.  Yet few are taking full advantage of what is available to them.  Why?  Is the financial need in K-12 not as real as we think?  Hardly.  School districts need the funds, particularly as property values stand where they are.  Has the state figured out alternative ways to get additional dollars to schools in need?  I think not.  Are we waiting for a rainy day when we really need this money?  I hate to point out, but is close to pouring these days.
Across the nation, we have school districts in urban and rural settings who have long put off the purchase of textbooks because they simply can’t afford it.  Seems this is an opportune time to open the ARRA wallet and buy students the new textbooks they need for today’s classroom.  We are talking more and more about teacher quality.  Seems the perfect moment to spend some of those stimulus gold coins on professional development programs for teachers in our struggling schools.  With teachers and students in such need of resources, how is it we can’t get the money intended for them actually to them?
Or maybe ARRA is just so six months ago, and we are looking for the latest trend.  The majority of states, including many of those on the list above that have left the majority of their stimulus funds on the table to date, are hopeful of winning RttT grants this fall or winter.  Seems to Eduflack that ED should put an additional requirement on RttT determination.  States can only get these additional dollars for innovation and improvement AFTER they have spent the first $55 billion intended for school improvement and a general shoring up of our classrooms.  Instead of worrying about their share of the $4.4 billion RttT fund (likely to be in the neighborhood of $295 million per state, spread over four years), shouldn’t Florida spend the $2.9 billion already available to them to race to the top right now?  What about Georgia and its $1.5 billion, can’t that be used to avoid teacher furloughs?  New York can’t find a need for its $3.7 billion in available dollars?  Even the District of Columbia still has $111 million of its obligated $115 million available.  MIchelle Rhee doesn’t know what to do with $100 million right here and right now to help struggling kids and schools in our nation’s capital?
In a perfect world, all of these federal dollars are meant to offer states a building block approach to school improvement.  ARRA goes to shore up the foundation and make sure funding remains on par with years past.  Proposed budget increases ensure that key programmatic dollars are flowing back to the states and districts, watering the improvement gardens.  And a select group of states will get RttT money to help accelerate their building and successfully build on what is already happening.
How can we distribute RttT funds if ARRA hasn’t taken hold?  How can we fund proposals from the states on needed improvements and innovations if they haven’t finished building the original house yet?  We are already seeing states scurrying to change their laws and policies to align with RttT draft guidance.  If that was the intent, why not just attach those regs to SFSF funds?  And at the end of the day, how do we know what was responsible for driving student achievement?  Was it ARRA or RttT, or another factor?  Until we have effective measurements in place, all of this could just be more of the same building on a flood plane that we see too often in education.

314 thoughts on “Is Stimulus Stimulating Our Schools?

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