Stimulus Watch: Education Money Gets Defined Goals (page 2)

Stimulus Watch: Education Money Gets Defined Goals

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Updated on Apr 10, 2009

And Duncan has made it clear that states will disqualify themselves for the next round of funding if the money is misused. "Under the law passed by Congress, the top priority for these dollars is to do right by our schools and our kids. If states play games with these funds, the second round of stabilization funds could be in jeopardy and they could eliminate their state from competitive grant money. This money must be spent in the best interests of children," he said.

Once the applications are reviewed, the money will be put in state's hands in two weeks, Abrevaya says. A second round of education funds, at $49 billion, will be released later in the year. The third round, a $4.35 billion competitive grant, will be awarded to states in late Fall of of 2009 or Summer of 2010. This grant, which Duncan calls the “Race to the Top Fund”, will be the carrot he uses to hold states accountable to the department's four goals, and to encourage program innovation. “Obviously we realize we’re not going to see an increase in student achievement in a few months,” Abrevaya said. “But, we want to see a commitment to pursuing those reforms.” More guidelines on how the grant will be distributed will be issued in the next several weeks.

It’s too early to say how schools will spend the money, as most states are finalizing their budgets now. But, John Laughner, legislative manager for the Committee for Education Funding, a nonpartisan and nonprofit education coalition, said he expects to see districts posting more want ads for teachers and curriculum specialists, and filing specs for construction projects on school buildings.

One of the biggest concerns for states is how schools will choose to spend the money, said Mike Griffith, senior school finance analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization for state officials that oversee education. States had assumed that since the money was being distributed in part through Title I funding formulas, they would have a say on how the money would be spent. But, according to Griffith, the DOE is just using the formula as a way to fork it out, and not as a way to ensure state control. While states can recommend and discourage districts on their spending practices, and many have already issued briefs for that purpose, it is ultimately the school districts that will decide. “So you could have a school district that decides to build a new school while laying-off teachers, and the state would have no control,” he said. “Everyone's worried about the one district doing something crazy with the money.”

However, Griffith stressed that most schools won’t have surplus funds with which to go crazy. “I'm afraid that all this talk will get parents excited about new and better teachers and after-school programs, but most schools will just be trying to keep their head above-water,” he said.

That reality may rub up against the message coming out of Washington. Abrevaya said while the department understands schools are guiding budgets through tight financial straits, they want to make sure that officials aren’t just “throwing money at the status quo. This is a huge pot of unprecedented stabilization funding. We’re going to be looking for reform-minded ideas”

That's why state officials are paying close attention to everything coming out of Duncan's mouth, said Griffith, including his most recent pledges for increased instruction time, pay-for-performance programs, and improved science education. In his briefing to education leaders on the stimulus guidelines, Duncan said: “We see an extraordinary opportunity here to change students’ lives. We want to save hundreds of thousands of teacher’s jobs. But, I want to be really clear: if all we do is save jobs then we’ve missed a huge opportunity. We want to push a dramatic reform agenda. We want to use an unprecedented investment in education to change outcomes and to dramatically improve achievements. And for all the progress we know how far we have to go to make sure our children have a real chance of being successful.”

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