Nearly two years after Congress passed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a new report attempts to draw lessons from that economic-stimulus effort, which included some $100 billion for education.
The report was released last week by Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington-based education consulting group, and was written, in part, by Sara Mead, who also writes a blog for Education Week.
It finds that, while a few districts tried new education improvement tactics, most used their share of stimulus money to maintain spending levels. Part of the problem, the report says, was that the U.S. Department of Education was late in providing guidance for some stimulus programs and sent “mixed messages” about whether the funds were supposed to be used for reforms, to save jobs, or both.
Districts that did use the money in new and creative ways did so mostly because of local factors, such as direction from effective leaders, and not necessarily because of the federal government’s guidance. The stimulus funds might have led to more innovation in districts, the report adds, if federal officials had more clearly told them what not to do with their stimulus funds—or discouraged districts, in other words, from using ineffective practices.
In comparison to the overall education-stimulus package, the report’s authors conclude that the smaller Race to the Top program, a $4.35 billion competition among states, succeeded in spurring change because that was its chief goal.
The report also concludes that the budget issues the stimulus tried to solve are a “long-term and systemic problem.” Many districts tried to spend in ways that would minimize the impact of the “funding cliff,” the funding drop-off now that the money has stopped flowing, but in some cases, that was impossible.
The report recommends that federal officials work to help districts make hard budget choices rather than postpone them and calls on policymakers at all levels to put a high priority on helping districts build capacity. It was underwritten by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which also helps fund coverage of the stimulus in Education Week.