Guidelines Sketch Out Use of Aid
Federal Stimulus Allocations to Come Soon, With Strings
The eagerly awaited federal guidelines on some $100 billion in stimulus funding for public education aim to pump money out quickly, while giving the U.S. Department of Education leverage to demand improvements from states and districts.
But those same states and districts are also warned not to expect the hefty sums for K-12 programs in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to become part of a new baseline for federal aid. The guidelines advise recipients to use the extra money coming over the next two years for short-term expenditures that could have longer-term benefits for student learning.
And as state and local officials gird for the challenge of managing the stimulus money, they are being told to keep careful track of every dollar in order to meet rigorous transparency and accountability requirements.
“If we see money being misspent, we’re going to put a stop to it, and we will call it out and we will publicize it,” President Barack Obama told a group of state officials who gathered at the White House for a March 12 conference on allocating the economic-stimulus funds.
“On the other hand, if the money is being spent as it needs to be spent, to rebuild our roads and our bridges and our schools, … then I think … the people we work for are going to be extraordinarily grateful,” he said.
Mr. Obama, who took office two months ago amid a worsening recession, had made the $787 billion stimulus bill his top legislative priority.
The U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines for states and districts on how to use their portion of nearly $100 billion in stimulus aid for education focus on pumping the money out quickly to spur economic recovery and save jobs. But the department also wants states to keep careful track of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, and direct them toward projects that boost student achievement. And the guidelines encourage state officials to keep in mind that this may well be one-time money and shouldn’t be spent on programs that are unsustainable.
State Fiscal Stabilization Fund
• The money, the majority of which is meant to help states backfill past cuts to education, will be sent out in two batches. To get the money, states must commit to improving assessments, standards, data systems, and equitable distribution of “highly qualified” teachers.
• The first batch of funds, 67 percent of each state’s total funding, about $32.5 billion, can be applied for this month.
• The second batch, about 33 percent of the total, or $16 billion, is expected to go out next fall. But, in order to be eligible for that portion, states will have to submit information explaining how they plan to make progress toward the education reform objectives spelled out in the stimulus law.
• States that are in particularly dire financial straits and in danger of laying off numerous employees can apply to receive up to 90 percent of their stabilization dollars in the first round.
• States are required to maintain funding for education at fiscal year 2006 levels to be eligible for the stabilization funds. But states in severe financial need may apply for a waiver.
• Applications for the “Race to the Top” and “innovation” funds—a $5 billion pot to be distributed by the U.S. secretary of education—are expected to be available this spring.
Title I Funds
• The Education Department has said the money must be “invested thoughtfully.” States are encouraged to pinpoint one-time expenses that will spur student achievement, in case appropriations don’t remain at the level in the stimulus measure. Half of the funds will be made available this month.
• States won’t have to fill out a new application to receive the first portion of their Title I recovery funds, which will go out by the end of March. That money will be distributed through existing formulas.
• To get the second portion of the funds, states will have to specify how they plan to address record-keeping and reporting requirements in the law.
• The department will consider waivers for one or more of the “set-aside” requirements in Title I, which include supplemental services and public school choice.
• Additional guidelines are expected on $3 billion in Title I school improvement grants, which are separate from the $10 billion in Title I grants to districts. The money will be available next fall.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
• The special education money will be spread across three programs. The largest share ($11.3 billion) will be for idea state grants. There is also $400 million for state preschool grants and $500 million for grants for infants and families. Fifty percent of the funds will be released this month.
• As with Title I, the money should generally be used for short-term investments that could reap long-term benefits, such as technology-assistive devices for students in special education.
The first batch of education stimulus money will be made available swiftly, federal officials say, and with relatively few strings attached. But the Education Department is asking states to submit much more detailed information on how they plan to improve student learning before they can tap a sizable portion of their second round of funding.
And, to tap a portion of special education aid and Title I funding for disadvantaged students, states must explain how they will comply with transparency and accounting requirements.
The biggest single restriction in the guidelines issued March 7 involves the $53.6 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, the bulk of which is aimed at steadying faltering state budgets in fiscal years 2009 and 2010.
States will get that funding in two batches.
This month, states will be able to apply for the first phase, about 67 percent of the money—roughly $32 billion. That money will go out within two weeks of a state’s submission of its application.
But a state can’t tap the rest of its stabilization funding—part of a $16 billion pot slated to go out next fall—until the Education Department approves its plans to comply with a set of education-redesign-oriented “assurances” spelled out in the stimulus law.
Each state must explain, in detail, how it will improve teacher quality and the equitable distribution of highly qualified teachers, develop better data systems, bolster standards and assessments, and turn around failing schools.
There’s a safety valve: If a state can demonstrate that the first round of funding won’t be enough to avert immediate layoffs, it could receive up to 90 percent of their stabilization money in the first round of funding. Those states would still have to submit detailed plans on how they would meet the assurances before they could gain access to the rest of their money.
Title I and IDEA
The department’s two-cycle plan is a good way to prod states to take the law’s education redesign assurances seriously, said Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy organization for the needs of minority students and those from low-income families.
“That’s heartening … that they remain serious about reform despite pressure to just move money,” Ms. Wilkins said in an e-mail.
The department is using a somewhat similar strategy with the $10 billion in stimulus money for the Title I program and the $11.7 billion for special education state grants, all of which will be spread out over fiscal 2009 and 2010.
Although Title I and special education aid has long been a cornerstone of federal funding for precollegiate education, the new allocations are a considerable increase over the usual annual appropriations. Title I received about $14.5 billion for fiscal 2009, the current budget year, while special education got $11.5 billion.
Fifty percent of the stimulus program’s Title I and special education funds will be available by the end of March. But, to get the rest of the funding, which won’t go out until the fall, states must detail how they plan to comply with record-keeping and reporting requirements for those programs.
The guidance also stresses that the stimulus funding is short-term money that may not be sustainable in future budgets. It emphasizes that districts and states should use the money for shorter-term investments to avoid being hurt by the “funding cliff” when the money runs out.
For instance, the Education Department recommends that Title I funds be used to expand prekindergarten programs, bolster online learning, or offer new opportunities for teacher professional development. And money provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act could be used to train general education teachers to work with students in special education.
Still, analysts say, districts may have a tough time finding programs that will put the stimulus aid to good use without setting up expectations for future funding.
“I think that’s one of the trickiest provisions in the law,” said Thomas Toch, a co-director of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington. “Politically, it’s a killer [to put] money into programs, then pull the rug out from under them two years later.”
But T. Kenneth James, the state schools chief in Arkansas, said his state, which has not made substantial cuts in education spending, will be able to pinpoint projects that will raise student achievement without needing to become part of the state’s budget baseline.
“We have to make sure we’re proving [to] our constituents and our taxpayers that we’re being good stewards of these resources,” Mr. James said. “We’re treating this as capital money, one-time money, because that’s what it is.”
Meanwhile, state officials and the federal department are gearing up to meet demanding accountability and transparency requirements.
Education Department advisers said they would be working to build on lessons learned from the department’s current inspector general and from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s experiences with disaster relief.
Judy Jeffrey, the state education chief in Iowa, is hoping that the department will be clear about what’s needed from states.
“We always want to make sure we have clarity at the front end so at the back end, when we are audited, we have really prepared ourselves,” she said.
More Guidance Expected
Additional guidelines and information are expected in the coming weeks and months.
For instance, the Education Department plans to allocate $4.35 billion in “Race to the Top” grants, which aim to reward states and districts that make significant strides in closing achievement gaps, raising academic standards, tracking student progress, and improving the distribution of high-quality teachers.
The department must also create an application process for the up-to-$650 million What Works and Innovation Fund, which will reward districts, nonprofit groups, and consortia of districts that are making substantial progress in improving student outcomes.
The guidance says the grants for those programs will go out in two batches, one next fall, and another in spring 2010. It says that guidelines and applications will be published “expeditiously,” but doesn’t give an exact timeline.
In what perhaps is a hint of what’s to come in the application guidance, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan signaled last week that the department is going to use the “Race to the Top” fund to prod states to develop more-uniform standards.
“I don’t want 12 great proposals from 12 great states,” Mr. Duncan told a Council of Chief State School Officers meeting in Washington. Such a scattered approach, he said, “doesn’t change the national conversation.”
Vol. 28, Issue 25, Pages 1,16-17