In stimulus bill, US funds for schools double
About a quarter of the new money is aimed at low-income pupils, to help with the achievement gap.
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Some of the money gives new leverage to the US Department of Education. Both the House and the Senate bills, for instance, would use $15 billion of the state stabilization funds for grants to states and districts that have made progress in improving testing, creating data systems to track students' achievement, and ensuring that excellent teachers are placed in high-needs districts (as opposed to the current trend of staffing those schools with the least-experienced teachers). The House version also includes nearly $500 million in additional funds for such goals and for linking teacher bonus pay to their students' achievement.Skip to next paragraph
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Education-reform advocates such as Ms. Wilkins support these incentives.
"Restoring the status quo isn't good enough for poor kids, because they weren't being educated adequately prior to the financial crunch," she says.
The impulse to attach strings to the new money loses sight of the primary purpose of the stimulus bill, says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a public-school advocacy group in Washington. "The more people want to put conditions on this money, the slower the money is going to be spent," he says. "If we go into a depression, you're not going to close the achievement gap.... You [won't] have the teachers there to teach."
The extra special-education funding would help ease what states and localities have long seen as an unfair burden. When the original special-education law passed in 1975, the US government promised to pay 40 percent of the costs, but it never has. The feds spent nearly $11 billion on special education in fiscal year 2008, about 17 percent of the total cost. In past years, the federal share has run even lower.
"The federal government has essentially reneged," says Doug Fuchs, an education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Studies of special-ed achievement levels haven't shown strong improvement over the past few decades, he adds.
The stimulus bills would bring the federal share to about 27 percent, according to a staff member of the House Committee on Education and Labor.
While needed, the special-education funding alone is not the key to improved student performance, says Lou Danielson, managing director at the American Institutes of Research and a former special-education staffer in the US Department of Education. "The fact that kids with disabilities were included as a subgroup [for school accountability] in No Child Left Behind has really focused, probably more than anything, attention on [their] academic performance," he says. So how the bill is reauthorized by Congress, and whether those requirements continue, will be "critically important."
How temporary some of this boosted education spending will be is another question. Some supporters and critics alike suggest it will be hard for the government to pull back once the economy recovers, because it would be seen as removing programs for students in need.
"We are entering a new era for federal funding of many things, but education in particular," says Edward Kealy of the Committee for Education Funding, an education coalition in Washington. "Once you've made this rationale that education [is] an essential component in response to an economic crisis ... you've given a rationale that it never had before."