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For schools, use of stimulus money falls short of big hopes

Many administrators say the opportunity to direct funds to reforms has been limited or nil.

By Staff writer / August 25, 2009

The federal stimulus package included about $100 billion for US public schools. In a new survey, many school-district leaders said they've used the money to save various personnel positions. Other top uses of the funds include buying technology, equipment, and supplies for classrooms.

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The announcement earlier this year that roughly $100 billion in federal stimulus funds would flow to public schools came with great expectations – both for saving jobs and for fostering reforms in education. But the way the money is being used so far is decidedly more mundane.

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In a new survey of 160 school-district leaders, 53 percent say they have not been able to use the money to save teaching positions in core subject areas or special education. And 67 percent say the opportunity to direct the money to reforms has been limited or nil.

“Everybody appreciated getting the money ..., but primarily all the money did was help to backfill the budget deficits they were already facing,” says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) in Arlington, Va., which released the survey Tuesday.

The majority of survey respondents did prioritize saving various personnel positions, along with investing in professional development. Other top uses of the money included buying technology, equipment, and supplies for classrooms and paying for school repairs.

Survey respondents cited several key reasons for not being able to focus more on reforms.

The money is coming through several streams, and the most flexible one, known as State Fiscal Stabilization, was primarily used to fill holes left by declining state and local funding.

The bulk of the remaining money comes with specific purposes: Title I stimulus funds support low-income students, and Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) dollars support special education. Fewer strings would have made it easier to stimulate the economy and implement innovative ideas, some respondents commented.

Fear of a “funding cliff” also comes into play: Administrators worry that if they maintain too many jobs or set up new programs now, they won’t be able to continue to fund them after the stimulus money runs dry in the 2010-11 academic year.

Some education-watchers, though, say districts could take a more radical approach if they were willing. “That would entail districts thinking about whether their class sizes ... are configured smartly, whether they’re using distance technologies effectively,... whether they might want to rethink their pay scales,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “One has to search long and hard to find districts doing any of this.”

Mr. Hess and Mr. Domenech do agree there is still hope that some models for reform will emerge from about $5 billion of stimulus cash still to be distributed to states and districts. Such competitive grants would be based on proposals in key areas, such as linking teacher pay to student outcomes and turning around failing schools.

The US Department of Education isn’t giving up hope, either: “We are confident that as states continue to invest stimulus dollars in their schools, the funds will not only go towards saving jobs but to investing in reform,” writes deputy press secretary Sandra Abrevaya in an e-mail.

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