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Stimulus Funding Reports Pose Puzzle for Watchdogs

Reports on Use of Funding a Challenge for Watchdogs
By Michele McNeil — November 06, 2009 6 min read
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Even as the Obama administration tries to make good on promises of unprecedented transparency and accountability in economic-stimulus funding, the first reports from states and school districts show the difficulty of figuring out—in detail—how the money for education has been spent.

In the broadest sense, the quarterly stimulus reports made public Oct. 30 provide a first glimpse at how states are spending some $100 billion in education aid under the program.

The biggest chunk of the $14 billion in such aid spent by states and districts so far has been focused on creating and saving jobs, about 335,000 of them through Sept. 30, according to the reports.

Only about $600 million in education funds had been used for other purposes, such as payments to companies for purchases, or outside staff.

Yet getting details about exactly what jobs were created—and precisely how each purchasing dollar was spent—is harder. In many cases, states, districts, and other stimulus-aid recipients offered wide variation in how much detail they provided on the electronic reports. Some left blank key data fields, such as program descriptions.

Education-Stimulus Jobs by Program

Most of the 335,000 education related stimulus jobs were created or saved by the nearly $39.5 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund. Here’s a breakdown of how many jobs were created or saved by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act program administered by the U.S. Department of Education:

BRIC ARCHIVE

Note: This does not include jobs created as part of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund’s government services fund, which states could spend on any priority need. Percentages may not add up due to rounding.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Education Week

So far, though, much of the focus by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been on the big picture: how many jobs were created or saved with the education stimulus money, which is being allocated as part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in February.

“Teachers are still teaching, ... education reform is still moving forward,” said Mr. Duncan in a Nov. 2 conference call. And the program, he added, is moving forward with “unprecedented transparency.”

While there are limitations in the reporting, that transparency does cast some light on how school districts are spending their money, which has been slow to trickle down to the district level.

At least $13 million in Title I funding for disadvantaged students, for example, has already been spent on technology, such as electronic whiteboards, computers, software, and technology training, according to an Education Week analysis of the reports available on Recovery.gov.

And about $50 million in special education aid so far has gone for tuition at other schools or placements for students with special needs.

How Transparent?

The extent of the transparency is sure to be tested.

News organizations such as the Chicago Tribune and USA Today have used the transparency Mr. Duncan described and discovered numerous reporting errors in education-related jobs, mostly involving numbers that were overreported.

Education-Stimulus Jobs by State

The number of education related jobs created under the economic-stimulus package varies greatly by state, as reported last month in the first quarterly reports made to the federal government.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Education Week

For example, in some Illinois districts, the number of jobs reported as having been created or saved outnumbered the total number of staff members in the districts, according to the Chicago Tribune report.

The jobs data illustrate the limitations of the one-size-fits-all approach the Obama administration used for reporting so as not to not make it overly burdensome for recipients. Stimulus-aid recipients fill out the same form whether the money was used on a road project or in a school classroom. And often, the fill-in-the-blank questions are open to interpretation.

Among the limitations evident in the first reports:

• Reporting detail varies widely. Alaska, for example, reported that 91 “teaching and support staff” jobs had been created so far from the education portion of the stimulus program’s State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, but gave no further detail. Delaware, by contrast, reported 205 jobs saved or created, and gave this breakdown: 155 teachers, 29 paraprofessionals, seven administrative posts, four guidance counselors, four secretaries, three substitute teachers, two technical-support workers, and one nurse.

• When the U.S. Department of Education highlights the 335,000 jobs the administration says were created or saved under the recovery act, those include a substantial—though unspecified—number of jobs in higher education. California, for example, reported that money from the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund saved about 53,400 education jobs in the state, but only about 18,800 were for K-12 education. But many states didn’t specify how their education jobs were broken down.

• Finding out specifically what the money has been spent on is difficult. Interactive, user-friendly maps on Recovery.gov list the names of the companies or individual recipients with which aid recipients spent money, but not a description of what the money was used for. That information—if provided by an aid recipient—is contained in more-cumbersome data files that can be downloaded from Recovery.gov.

Looking Deeper

Still, the reports are useful in aggregating information that has so far been only anecdotal—especially since most of the discussion and media reports have focused on how the education stimulus money is being used to stabilize state budgets.

Often overlooked, for example, is that school districts also are getting $10 billion in additional Title I funding to help disadvantaged students.

The 18,000-student Martin County school district in Florida has some of the most detailed reports of Title I spending, including such specifics as $264 spent on math programs from “Hands-on Equations” and $719 on professional development with The MASTER Teacher company.

But even with such a detailed list of how the district had spent some of the $150,000 or so in Title I money it had gotten so far, the information doesn’t paint a full picture of how the district has been using its money.

Cathy Tedesco, the district’s Title I director, filled in those blanks in an interview last week.

The district has increased the number of Title I schools to seven from four, added reading coaches, and beefed up its parent-resource center, she said. Individual schools are deciding to decrease class sizes and invest in more professional development for teachers. All the while, Ms. Tedesco said, she’s tried to convey that the extra aid is temporary, one-time money.

“Yet we think what we’re doing is very sustainable, even when the money is gone,” she said.

For the 12,500-student Cabell County district in West Virginia, the reporting on federal aid doesn’t reveal the comprehensive plan the district has for its $3.5 million in Title I grants. (Money hasn’t trickled down far enough yet from the state to reflect precisely where the district has spent it.)

Allyson Schoenlein, the district’s director of Title I programs, said one of its big emphases is technology. The district is adding one mobile laptop lab for every two classrooms in its nine Title I schools, updating wireless technology in the buildings, and hiring three technology-integration specialists to help teachers learn to use the new features in their classrooms. The district will also be using part of the Title I funds to improve professional development for teachers.

Ms. Schoenlein said she’s been mindful of the federal reporting requirements—and all the rules and demands that every penny be tracked and accounted for.

“It’s overwhelming to keep track of all of the grants because there are so many new requirements,” she said. “I imagine it’s the same burden as winning the lottery.”

For policy advocates, the additional reporting requirements leave out one crucial thing: What are states, schools, and students getting for the money?

Asked Amy Wilkins, the vice president of government affairs and communications for the Washington-based Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of disadvantaged and minority students: “It’s clear school districts are spending their money on a wide variety of things, but are they getting results?”

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Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Stimulus Data Trove Examined

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