JOURNALISTS HEAR STIMULUS CONCERNS
from the May '09 Urban Educator | Council of Great City Schools
In Meeting to Track Education Aid News reporters covering education heard concerns about the distribution of economic stimulus funds to local school districts at the Education Writers Association conference held recently in the nation’s capital.
It’s not clear how much of the $40 billion education portion of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund of the federal stimulus package will be diverted by the states to fill their own budget gaps, Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, told the education journalists.
“State after state have been lowering their overall spending levels down to the Fiscal Year ’06 levels based on the amounts of resources they expect to get from the stimulus,” he stressed.
Casserly maintained that some states are indicating they will use the stabilization dollars to backfill their own budget deficits, replenish state pension systems – or even provide tax cuts to their citizenry.
“It is not clear that this is illegal, but it is clearly not consistent with the spirit of the law,” he emphasized, noting that the U.S. Department of Education’s threats to withhold the second half of the stimulus money are probably not enforceable.
As a result, most city school districts are now assuming that they won’t receive much stabilization dollars, he contends.
Casserly was one of three panelists to discuss “Tracking the Stimulus,” a conference session moderated by USA TODAY education reporter Greg Toppo. Education writers from across the nation packed the room to learn more about how to monitor the distribution and use of the $100 billion in federal stimulus money for elementary, secondary and higher education.
Of the other funds to be distributed under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law in February, Casserly pointed out that the city school districts will probably receive most of the stimulus funds through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Although Title I and IDEA programs are highly regulated, there are some atgrade point averages, college readiness and attendance, and assume leadership roles in their schools and communities. tempts by states to cut funds in the amounts of those allocations, said Casserly.
“Ultimately, most of these funds should make it to the local level, but neither Congress nor the [Obama] Administration has been very eager to grant flexibility in their use,” he continued, indicating the highly restrictive provisions on the use of Title I and IDEA funds.
Moreover, Casserly said that many local school districts are confused by how to use the stimulus funds. “Frankly, the Administration has not always been clear enough or vocal enough about whether their priority was jobs and economic stimulus or reform and improvement [in school districts],” he argued. “And no one has clearly said what they expect schools to accomplish with the funds after two years.”
But Casserly noted that at least the dollar amounts are clearer under Title I and IDEA than most parts of the stimulus bill passed by Congress.
He said that many of the big-city school districts are planning expenditures using stimulus funds within the “narrow confines” of the Title I and IDEA provisions to build capacity, institute one-time activities and reform practices.
The Council of the Great City Schools is collecting data on stimulus money being received and how funds will be used, and advising and counseling its member districts on how to best use the funds effectively, wisely and transparently.
Casserly said that he knows urban school districts are building some of their planned Title I and IDEA expenditures around early childhood education, extended day, weekend and summer programs, and teacher incentives to work in hard-to-staff schools among a host of other activities to boost student achievement and reform efforts.
STIFLING THE STIMULUS
By Jeff Simering, Director of Legislation | Council of Great City Schools (from the May Urban Educator)
If “too many cooks will spoil the broth,” then maybe “too many government officials can stifle the stimulus.” After winding its way through Congress and the federal executive branche; funneling through the states; and trickling down to the local level (something that still has not happened yet), the actual assistance provided by the education stimulus package appears less sizable or flexible than what many local school officials originally anticipated.
Topping the list of local school frustrations is the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, the largest single source of federal education aid in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Big-city school officials are reporting that some states are lowering state education aid beyond what is necessary in anticipation of replacing these state funds with federal stabilization aid. The “supplanted” state educationfunds are then slated for other purposes, including state pension systems or even the state “rainy day” fund. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education has yet to prohibit such “Bait and Switch” tactics regarding the State Stabilization Fund, a situation that could result in many local school systems effectively getting no additional funds at all.
To cope with losses in state and local revenue, school districts are particularly eager to have maximum flexibility in the use of remaining dollars to push their reforms forward. With the “gaming” of the $40 billion Education Stabilization Fund in some states, school districts have turned their attention to the flexibility provided under the 2004 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The amendments allowed school districts to use half of their annual IDEA funding increases to supplant local efforts. This would free up some $11 billion to be used more flexibly. Thousands of school districts—including the majority of school districts in some states—may be precluded from using this provision, however, by the Department of Education because of how it is being interpreted by agency staff.
Finally, even the most savvy local school officials are perplexed by mixed messages from federal and state levels on how the stimulus money can be used. Over $25 billion of the education stimulus funds are categorical in nature—Title I and IDEA—and retain most of their current requirements and regulations. Unfortunately, these stimulus funds are being subjected to the same type of inconsistent, restrictive, and questionable state guidance that typically frustrates local officials in dealing with any federal aid. Local plans to extend the school day in certain Title I low-performing schools, for example, have been stifled by state directives.
Local school districts are also getting mixed messages about whether they should be using the funds to promote school reforms or save jobs and stimulate the economy. It is possible to do some of both, of course, but the task is made more difficult without the flexibility.
Everyone is watching closely to see how the ARRA funds will be used in the nation’s schools, but the ultimate impact of the stimulus initiative may be affected as much by state and federal regulators as it will by local level educators.