Published Online: December 8, 2009
Published in Print: December 9, 2009, as State-Level Impact of Stimulus Said Mixed

State-Level Impact of Stimulus Said Mixed

Report Finds Most States Struggling to Carry Out Education-Related Improvements

The vast majority of states plan to apply for $4 billion in Race to the Top Fund grants, even though they admit they’re struggling to improve teacher quality and low-performing schools—two core reform areas in the federal economic-stimulus program and the Obama administration’s education agenda.

What’s more, according to a new report by the Center on Education Policy, more than half the states report that their capacity to carry out stimulus-related education changes is a “major problem.”

In the report released last week, the Washington-based center offers a glimpse into how states and school districts are implementing the education pieces of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in February.

The report, titled “An Early Look at the Economic Stimulus Package and the Public Schools,” is the first installment in a three-year research project the nonprofit research and policy group is conducting on the impact of the stimulus law. The report mirrors anecdotal evidence and stimulus-reporting data that show the program so far is mostly bolstering state budgets, while the impact on education improvement is less clear.

The roughly $100 billion in education aid to be doled out under the larger stimulus package is supposed to be focused on four key reform areas, or “assurances,” states had to make to qualify for a significant portion of the money. Those areas are teacher quality; data systems and the use of data; standards and assessments; and turnarounds of the lowest-performing schools.

Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, said, “Schools and the federal government seem to have a common reform agenda for education.”

Uneven Progress

Data from 44 states and the District of Columbia show that states are farther along in making progress in the areas of data and standards and assessments than in the other “assurance” areas.

See a state-by-state breakdown of funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Thirty-three states, for example, said they were considering adopting the “common core” standards in mathematics and English/language arts being developed under an effort spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Although 48 states have signed on to that initiative, the CEP report found that of the 44 states plus the District of Columbia that responded, seven states were undecided about whether to adopt them, and that two of the 45 respondents said they weren’t considering adopting the standards.

The report notes that movement in those areas was under way before the stimulus package was passed. Those two areas generally involve straightforward, state-level policy changes.

The two areas where states reported they were having the most difficulty—teacher quality and low-performing schools—are more complicated and much more dependent on local school districts, schools of education, and other groups, Mr. Jennings points out.

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Washington-based education chiefs’ organization, the CCSSO, agreed. Those issues are “harder, they’re more complex. How far can you go with legislation to require excellence?”

The report also suggests that states are relying on traditional strategies to make educational improvements. In the area of teacher quality, for example, 30 states reported that they planned to use stimulus funds for professional development.

The question is whether federal Department of Education officials, who are in charge of the Race to the Top competition, will want to see bolder reforms, said Mr. Jennings, a former longtime aide to Democrats on the education committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has insisted that in order to win Race to the Top funding, states will have to push the envelope, and set a high bar for education reforms.

There will be a lot of competition for Race to the Top. In the report, 41 respondents said their states were planning to apply for Race to the Top grants. At the same time, 24 states reported that state capacity limits were a “major problem” in making progress in the four reform areas.

Capacity issues in state education departments are forcing education chiefs to redeploy existing staff and resources in new directions, Mr. Wilhoit said. “In this economic downturn, it’s been a lot easier for a legislature to go after state education agency funds than the schools,” he said.

Intense interest in Race to the Top, despite all of the demanding requirements, can be attributed at least in part to the dire budget conditions. “States badly need the money,” Mr. Jennings said.

The report reiterates what other reports and organizations have found: State finances are expected to get worse. Fourteen states said they expected funding for K-12 education to decrease this fiscal year, compared with fiscal 2009.

Vol. 29, Issue 14, Pages 14-15

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