Schools wrestle with how to spend stimulus funds

Should they launch new programs to help kids or try to save jobs threatened by tough economic times?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Education chief: Secretary Duncan urges schools to do more than invest in the status quo.
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At the heart of President Obama's historic $787 billion economic stimulus program is a tough choice for educators: Do states and local school districts use the $100 billion spike in federal aid to do new things for kids or mainly to backfill the status quo?

The Obama administration is calling on schools to do both. But with state and local governments facing massive budget shortfalls, the challenge will be to avoid seeing the mandate to save existing jobs trump prospects for dramatic, systemic change.

"We're putting $100 billion on the table.... We may never see this kind of money in public education again," US Education Secretary Arne Duncan told urban school leaders at the annual meeting of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington on Sunday.

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"If all we do is use the stimulus money to invest in the status quo, we're not going to get to where we need to go. We're not going to get close," he warned.

Before the stimulus package, which Mr. Obama signed into law on Feb. 17, US public schools faced the prospect of a 18.5 percent drop in state funding through fiscal year 2010 – a shortfall of about $54 billion, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Seattle.

Without federal help, that could have meant a cut of 9 percent of jobs in K-12 education, or some 574,000 jobs, according to the CRPE report.

With local governments – battered by foreclosures and a plunge in housing values – covering about 44 percent of K-12 public school costs, the overall budget shortfall would have been even deeper.

"We have districts that were laying off people by the hundreds and thousands," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's largest city school districts.

"It could do nothing but wreak havoc on the progress that these urban districts have made academically over the last several years," he said.

In many cities, class size – one of the most consistent elements in strategies to improve student achievement – would have jumped to more than 40 students per class, up from 25. School districts were also projecting cuts in building repair and renovation.

To avert thousands of teacher layoffs, Secretary Duncan announced on March 7 that $44 billion in stimulus funding will be made available to states in the next 30 to 45 days.

The stimulus plan provides $54 billion in new federal dollars for a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund to replace state spending cuts, including $8.8 billion for priority initiatives of governors that could include education.

Another $13 billion in stimulus funding will boost programs to help schools serving poor families under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and $12 billion is assigned to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

But Washington also wants to use stimulus funding to leverage changes in how schools operate. To be eligible for a second round of funding, states and local school districts must demonstrate that they are also serious about reform.

"If you're just filling gaps, filling holes, that will disqualify you from other dollars," Duncan told urban school leaders, who met with Obama administration officials in the White House on Monday.

At the heart of the Obama administration's reform agenda is college- and career-ready standards and establishing better data systems to track student progress. In addition, states and school districts must demonstrate that they are shifting teaching talent to the lowest performing schools.

Both the Bush and Clinton administrations made a case for higher standards. The Bush administration required testing in reading and math for Grades 3, 5, and 8. But the Obama Education Department wants to move US schools to extend standards and accountability all the way to teachers and the schools that train them.

"We want to know which teachers are really adding value, and we need to track teachers back to their schools of education," he said on Sunday. "Some schools of education are doing a great job helping teachers come to the profession ready to learn and ready to drive student achievements and others aren't."

In Pennsylvania, the new stimulus money means the $300 million budget for education announced in February has been increased to $418 million. But noting that the funds run out in two years, Gov. Edward Rendell (D) is urging local school districts to use the funding for "legacy" projects, such as school repair or teacher training.

But Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman says that the stimulus gives urban schools "a chance for real innovation," including regional early childhood centers. "We wouldn't have been able to focus on initiatives like that without stimulus funding," she says.

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