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School & District Management

Stimulus-Aid Bonanza Draws Heat on Campaign Trail

By Alyson Klein — October 22, 2010 5 min read
Union members in Florida rally as early balloting starts. The stimulus program’s effectiveness in securing education and other jobs has been a hot topic in electoral contests nationwide.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—the economic-stimulus law that included some $100 billion for public education—is taking a beating on the campaign trail this midterm election season.

Although many Democrats contend the economic outlook would have been even bleaker without the measure and say it played a crucial role in preventing education-related layoffs, Republicans critical of the law say it did little to steady the still-stumbling economy.

And even some of the stimulus’ staunchest supporters within the education community acknowledge that the law isn’t popular with much of the public.

“Generally, the stimulus has become a negative brand,” said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition in Washington that helped champion the measure.

The challenge for Democrats is that most Americans didn’t feel the impact of the unprecedented infusion of federal cash, Mr. Packer said.

“There’s no question that for education, [cuts and layoffs] would have been demonstrably worse without the stimulus,” he said. But even educators may not realize that fact. “It’s not like you get a piece of paper that says, ‘Your job was saved because of the stimulus.’ ”

The $787 billion recovery act passed in winter of 2009, shortly after President Barack Obama took office. It included some $100 billion for education, and created a host of new K-12 redesign programs, including the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition.

The measure also included a major infusion of aid for Title I grants for disadvantaged students, special education, and money for improving struggling schools.

Just three GOP lawmakers voted for the bill: Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, plus Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. (Mr. Specter has since switched parties and is now a Democrat.)

Over the summer, Congress passed $10 billion in additional aid to help schools avert layoffs and programmatic cuts. Although the two laws were passed separately, voters and critics often lump them together.

As to whether the stimulus was effective, Democrats point to an estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which concludes that the legislation increased the number of people employed by 1.2 million to 2.8 million during the first quarter of 2010. The U.S. Department of Education says the stimulus money saved or created about 300,000 education jobs.

But Republicans note that unemployment nationally hovers around 10 percent. And they point to continual cuts in government services—including education—as evidence that the recovery act has fallen short of its goals.

Missed Opportunity

Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona state schools chief who was the top education adviser for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said the stimulus and, in particular, the $4 billion in grants to individual states under the Race to the Top competition, had an important impact on areas such as teacher tenure and teacher evaluation.

“I think it’s unfair to say [the stimulus] didn’t do anything,” she said. “There were shovel-ready policies that were sitting in a bunch of states” that would not have come to fruition without federal incentives, such as measures to link student outcomes with teacher effectiveness.

But those policy changes aren’t getting talked about much on the campaign trail, said Ms. Keegan, who is now the president of Education Breakthrough Network, a nonpartisan resource center based in Phoenix for organizations and individuals seeking to advance school choice.

“You hear almost nothing” about the law’s impact on K-12, she said.

Meanwhile, voters are still feeling the sting of the economic downturn, even though the recession is officially over.

“It’s hard for people to understand why it’s not getting better,” Ms. Keegan said. “Whatever the stimulus did, it didn’t cure the patient.”

Now, a candidate’s support of the stimulus bill has become fuel for attack ads.

For instance, the Club for Growth, an anti-tax organization that supports candidates who espouse a belief in limited government, is running an ad in Pennsylvania’s hotly contested Senate race attacking the Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, for his support of the recovery act.

“How liberal is Congressman Joe Sestak?” the ad asks. “Despite the recession Sestak voted for that $700 billion Obama-Pelosi stimulus.” Rep. Sestak is running against former Rep. Patrick Toomey, a Republican who served as president of the Club for Growth.

An ad sponsored by GOP candidate Dan Debicella, a state senator, in Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District, shows a copy of the actual stimulus bill, then charges that the incumbent, Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat, supported a “stimulus package that has done nothing to reduce unemployment.”

Debate Fodder

The issue has also come up in debates and campaign-trail speeches. For instance, just last week, Carly Fiorina, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in California, knocked incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, for her support of the measure.

And during a debate in Florida, Marco Rubio, the Republican Senate nominee, hit both of his rivals for their support of the stimulus package.

Mr. Rubio said the measure hasn’t had the promised impact on the Sunshine State’s sluggish economy. He is competing against U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., who voted for the stimulus bill, and Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican who is now running as an independent and who supported the stimulus and accepted the funding for his state.

Florida received about $2.7 billion in recovery act funds aimed at stabilizing its budget and won a $700 million Race to the Top grant, one of just a dozen winners in the national competition.

“You said the stimulus would stimulate the economy and create jobs,” Mr. Rubio, a former speaker of the state house, said in an Oct. 6 debate. “Unemployment in Florida is at 11.7 percent. Three million Americans have lost their job. … The stimulus has been a massive failure. The only thing it has stimulated is the national debt.”

But Gov. Crist countered that the legislation “saved over 20,000 educators their jobs in the state of Florida. I don’t know how you can look ’em in the eye, Marco, and say, you know, ‘I don’t care about you. And you’re not gonna have that food on your table for your families.’ ”

And there are some instances where endangered incumbents are making their support for the recovery act a selling point.

For instance, on his congressional website, Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., who is a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, says his vote for the law helped schools stave off cuts.

“By voting for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” the website says, “Congressman Altmire helped provide school districts across western Pennsylvania with millions of dollars in additional funding that will help them provide children with a first-rate education.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2010 edition of Education Week as Stimulus-Aid Bonanza Proving Problematic Along Campaign Trail

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