Editor's Note: This article was written prior to the finished bill. For a more recent article about the stimulus package, click here.
President Obama's campaign stump on education went like this: “No Child Left Behind left the money behind.”
Now, after the House passed an $819 billion economic stimulus package that includes $150 billion for education, the new administration is walking the walk—albeit on eggshells, as Obama courts Republicans for votes. The House behind them, package is now in the hands of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and, once approved, will be passed to the floor so the full Senate can vote on it.
Why should you care? Well, for one, the package would more than double the budget for the Department of Education. Public schools haven’t experienced such a shot in the arm since just after World War II.
How does that $150 billion break down? Here are some of the highlights:
- School Renovation and Modernization: $20 billion. This money will repair, renovate and construct public schools in ways that will raise energy efficiency and provide greater access to information technology.
- Education Technology: $1 billion. This money would create computer and science labs, and provide teacher technology training.
- Improved Teacher Quality: $300 million. Includes $200 million in incentive money for teachers and administrators who raise student achievement in high-need schools and $100 million for competitive grants to states, in order to address teacher shortages and modernize the workforce.
- Title I Program for Disadvantaged Children and Special Education Students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (part of No Child Left Behind): $26 billion. For the past eight years, the U.S. Government has only been funding 17 percent of the 40 percent it promised for student with disabilities. The stimulus package would bump that up to 27 percent.
- Head Start: $2.1 billion. The bill would give an additional 110,000 students access to the Head Start program, based on need.
- Child Care Development Block Grant: $2 billion. This would provide child care services to an additional 300,000 children from low-income families.
- Spending on Pell Grants: $15.6 billion. This would increase the maximum Pell Grant by $500, from $4,850 to $5,350
- State Stabilization Fund: $79 billion. This money is set aside to fix immediate budget problems. Of this, $39 billion is meant for K-12 and higher education and $15 billion is to go towards State Education Performance Grants—competitive grants chosen based on a school's success in creating data systems, distributing teachers, and improving assessments for special education and English-language learners.
Those for and against the bill agree: it's a lot of money.
But, don’t be fooled, says Mike Griffith, senior school finance analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization for state officials that oversee education, this will not create a windfall for most schools: “There’s this weird misconception that this is like a lottery check, and that suddenly their state department of education is going to get billions of dollars.” In fact, he says, the money is being spread out over so many states and projects, that it really won’t equal much of a bonus at all. Instead, the bill will work to cancel out the effects of a negative economy—making sure the quality of education for all children in maintained.
“If this functions correctly as it’s supposed to, your son or daughter will not see any difference in their class this year. It will be the same class, same textbooks, with the same computers. But if this didn’t happen they’d be in larger classrooms, with older books,” Griffith says.
Opponents of the bill say they prefer outdated textbooks to more debt. Rick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research group, points out the government doesn’t actually have this money to spend. “It’s money we will continue to borrow against our kids,” he says.
Hess says instead of focusing on spending, schools should be paying closer attention to tighter accountability measures, teacher compensation, and professional development. “Just like an economy that's built on borrowing, we have a public education sector built on spending money to staff our schools without much attention to whether they can do their work,” he says.
According to Hess, the package demonstrates America’s continued unwillingness to face hard choices, such as laying-off teachers, in the face of an unstable economy: “This is a fork in the road for school reform, and we are going to take the course of minimizing short term pain, and putting off important decisions.”
Education analysts in support of the package say the money, albeit borrowed, is necessary and well accounted for. “It’s not a block grant where they give each state a blank check,” says John Laughner, legislative manager for the Committee for Education Funding, a nonpartisan and nonprofit education coalition.
The bill would be dished out in various grants. Some of the money, such as that set aside for special education, will use the same Title I formulas currently in place as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, where funding is decided based on the number of students eligible for a free lunch program. Other moneys would be given based on a cocktail of different population metrics, including the number of people in the state aged 5 to 24-year-olds and the state’s total population.
Still, some in Washington say the bill isn’t all that they’d hoped. “In the end it doesn’t feel like [the money] is really being allocated in ways that are benefiting states and districts,” says Jennifer Cohen, a policy analyst with the New American Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy think tank.
The criticism lies in the way the funds are distributed. The New America Foundation estimates that of all the recipients, Washington D.C. would get the most stimulus money in 2009 at $1,289 per student, followed by Puerto Rico at $927 per student, Louisiana at $785 per student, New York at $760, and Vermont at $679. Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, comes in eighth at $657—a ranking which shows the age-old formulas are flawed, Cohen says.
Friends to the bill or foe, all experts agree that it represents a big change in national policy.
It’s not just the amount of money that makes this bill historic, it also symbolizes a shift in the government’s role in education. Traditionally, the feds have been a minority partner in education, providing about 7 percent of total funding for education, usually in the form of aid to at-risk and special education students. With this bill’s passage, they’d be funding about 20 percent of education, including help for building construction and teacher pay.
Griffith says education analysts see it as a changing of the guards. Once states and districts start taking federal money, “Who’s going to be calling the shots?” he says. “The debate for several decades has been state vs. local. States have slowly taken over control, but the feds have been on the side-lines. Now it’s a three-way debate: state, local, or federal.”
The U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations issued a statement that Congress needs a bold plan to “lay the foundation for American's economic competitiveness in the 21st century,” and based on how the money is divvied up, it's clear they see educating the future workforce as playing a key role in that endeavor.
In terms of immediate stimulus, Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the package will prevent “literally hundreds of thousands of teacher layoffs.” And, more than just preventing layoffs, Duncan says the money set aside to fix America's deteriorating schools will create many new construction jobs.
Skeptics project that only a small number of new jobs will be created, and that the plan will, instead, diminish fiscal discipline among school officials. “I would argue that when it’s free money coming from Washington there’s less incentive for local people to worry about how it’s being spent,” Hess says. And since the money has an expiration date of two years, experts worry what will happen once 2011 rolls around.
For right now, school officials, in the throws of budget season, are chomping at the bit to find out how much they’ll receive. “The longer it takes to get clear details of this, the greater the problems,” Griffith says. If the bill stalls, districts will have to put their budgets on hold, and that presents myriad challenge; schools can’t make purchase decisions and teachers will be in limbo about their employment status.
Regardless of where the package goes from here, it shows a clear message that the federal government wants to give more money—and place a greater stake—in the education of American school children.