Stimulus Funds Up the Ante for Public Schools

Handing $100 billion to needy public schools in an economic crisis is an unalloyed good thing, right?

Depends.

School districts across the USA are gearing up to receive the first payments under the federal economic stimulus. It temporarily — and substantially — increases the federal government's share in funding public schools over the next two years, promising to save the threatened jobs of thousands of teachers. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls it a "historic opportunity" to jump-start reforms that "will transform public education in America." He's pushing schools to use the money not just to save jobs but to improve student achievement.

A few observers say they're concerned that a two-year span is not — and has never been — enough time to generate big gains. By 2011, they say, critics of greater education spending will undoubtedly cite the dearth of results to push for less education spending — perhaps even an end to federal funding.

"If you were trying to set the system up to look bad, one good way to do it is to throw an awful lot of money at it — money it can't possibly absorb in two years — and then expect that you're going to see changes in student achievement," says David Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Could the very thing that Duncan hopes will push public education into the 21st century set it back decades?

"You can certainly imagine a scenario where this makes things tougher for public school advocates," says Rick Hess, an education policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Looking ahead two years, he says, "I would be astonished if anything showed up — period."

That may be the nature of the stimulus, the vast majority of which aims simply at saving jobs. Of the $100 billion, $95 billion "is the cost of doing business," says Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York-based political action committee. Most of the remaining $5 billion, slated to go out this year, makes up Duncan's "Race to the Top Fund," a competitive grant that will reward innovation. Duncan says he'll withhold funding in the second year from districts that don't try something new, such as raising academic standards, adopting innovative teaching models, reassigning their best teachers to the neediest schools and investing in long-term student-tracking systems.

"Money gives you the leverage to bring people to the table and change the way things are done," he said last week.

Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, an education advocacy group based in Washington, says that even if schools can't produce better academic results in two years, they can show "that we've broken the habit of 'business as usual' " by killing ineffective or unproven programs.

"This is sort of 'stand and deliver' time for education," she says. "If the education community doesn't deliver change with this money, this becomes 'TARP for Public Schools' — and that's a huge danger. The next time we go hat in hand, it's going to be awfully hard to justify another investment."

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