Here's a trivia question for the world's next slumdog millionaire: How much money does America's economic stimulus provide for education? Answer: $115 billion – nearly twice the usual budget for the Department of Education. Now here's a question for the cabinet secretary doling out that money: Will the funds be spent wisely?
There's only one way to know the answer, and that's for Education Secretary Arne Duncan to make sure that the two-year spending package is transparent, and that the criteria for its dispersal are clear and precise.
Transparency should start at the agency, so taxpayers can see what's flowing from the spigot and know whether to turn it off. And it should reach all the way down to school districts, so parents can see who's getting what. Criteria, too, must be set fairly and aimed at motivating higher academic achievement.
"The opportunity for misdeeds and so forth is high with this big amount of money," former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told Education Week. "If I had a nickel for every member of Congress who called me up and said, 'Won't you look kindly on...?' "
Of the total stimulus pie of $787 billion, the education slice accounts for about 15 percent. Think of this learning wedge in two parts: The larger piece, about $61 billion, beefs up specific programs such as Pell Grants for college students, schools serving disadvantaged kids, Head Start, and technology in the classroom. Mr. Duncan has little say over this money, much of which is distributed by formulas.
It's the other piece, the $54 billion slice, that holds the greatest potential for misdirection. This is a discretionary "stabilization fund" meant to protect against layoffs and budget cuts at a time when states face disappearing revenues.
Wisely, Congress did set some criteria for access to this money. States, for instance, must show progress in using databases that track student achievement. That's important because it's hard to judge what works in the absence of measurable results.
States also have to show they're improving tests and standards, and boosting teacher effectiveness – including getting more good teachers to poor school districts.
Meanwhile, states can't pull a switcheroo, subbing out state dollars for federal ones. The stimulus requires that they at least fund schools up to 2006 levels – though it provides a waiver (loophole?) for states really on the skids.
But even these rules leave it up to Duncan to decide how much and to whom. Meanwhile, there are no sticks to discourage misuse.
Congress, however, did include in the stabilization fund a $5 billion carrot to motivate practices that encourage student achievement. His predecessors got just $16 million a year in discretionary funds.
Duncan, a reformer from Chicago's public schools, says he wants to use this money to reward what works in improving learning – via teacher pay-for-performance programs, for instance, charter schools, and teacher mentoring.
Those are laudable goals. But 50 states will want their piece – and likely more than Duncan has to give. They'll exert tremendous political pressure. Duncan's challenge will be in the choosing and the tracking of the recipients.