Federal

Stimulus Plan Aids Education

By Alyson Klein — January 16, 2009 5 min read
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Cash-strapped school districts could see an unprecedented $100 billion infusion of federal aid under a massive economic-stimulus package unveiled by House Democrats this week.

The overall measure, put forth Jan. 15 by the House Appropriations Committee, is aimed at providing a $825 billion jolt to the stumbling U.S. economy, and to help avert what could be draconian cuts in state and local programs, including education.

The more than $100 billion in federal spending for education in the stimulus bill would be nearly double the entire $59.2 billion discretionary budget for the U.S. Department of Education in fiscal 2008.

The K-12 education funding would come from various components of the stimulus package.

The legislation includes a $79 billion fund to help states to prevent cuts in services, the bulk of which is slated for education. On top of that, the measure outlines specific aid for school construction, support for early-childhood education, and substantial spending boosts for major Education Department programs, including Title I grants for educating disadvantaged students and aid for special education.

“We really have turned a corner here. This is a new era for education funding,” assuming the plan is enacted, said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an advocacy coalition in Washington.

Mr. Kealy, who has been lobbying for increased federal education spending for more than two decades, said he had never seen dollar amounts for schools like those in the proposed House stimulus plan.

“This makes a very strong statement that providing adequate funding for education and modernizing schools is a key part of the solution to this economic crisis,” he said. “We hope this means that we can sustain that in future years. I know that’s going to be a challenge.”

Before taking office, members of President-elect Barack Obama’s staff were on Capitol Hill this month, working with lawmakers to craft the measure. The House appropriations panel is slated to consider the bill Jan. 21, and the Senate was expected to release a similar plan.

Aid for Construction

Key existing programs would be targeted for major increases, including a $13 billion boost for Title I, which effectively doubles the amount of money the program received in fiscal 2008. The measure would provide an additional $13 billion for grants to states for students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—more than the entire $10.9 billion appropriated for that program in fiscal 2008, which ended Sept. 30.

“That will dramatically relieve the local burden districts face in covering the federal shortfall,” said Mary L. Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va. Democratic congressional staff members said last week that the Senate bill would likely include similar proposals for Title I, the idea, and general aid for states.

The House bill contains an additional $20 billion in school construction grants, including $14 billion for K-12 schools and $6 billion for higher education. The stimulus package is also likely to include money for school construction bonds. (“Cost Concerns, Economic Anxieties Put Construction on Shaky Ground,” this issue.)

The K-12 grant program would be modeled on a school construction measure that passed the House last June. The money could be used for a variety of modernization, renovation, and repair projects. Many of the projects financed under the bill would also have to meet certain environmental standards.

The measure also includes $1 billion for educational technology, including computer and science labs, and teacher technology training. And it would provide $250 million in competitive grants for states to create data systems that analyze individual student performance results to help bolster achievement.

GOP Questions

The House bill would include new money for teacher training, including $200 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to districts to develop pay-for-performance programs. That’s roughly double the $97 million the program received in fiscal 2008. Although the dollar amount is fairly small, the increase sends a signal that the incoming administration is likely to support the program.

The TIF program has been criticized by the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, in part because grantees are not required to develop the alternative-pay programs in collaboration with teachers’ unions.

Meanwhile, $15 billion of the $79 billion fund targeted for state aid would be awarded as “incentive grants” for fiscal years 2009 and 2010. States that receive the grants would have to provide assurances that they are working to develop longitudinal data systems, enhance assessments for students in special education and English-language learners, and ensure equitable assignment of teachers, among other requirements.

Congress has not yet passed regular spending bills for most federal agencies for fiscal 2009, which began Oct. 1. Instead, lawmakers passed a measure last fall extending funding for most programs at fiscal 2008 levels through early March.

Lawmakers are expected to approve fiscal 2009 spending legislation early this year.

Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, issued a statement Jan. 15 saying he was “disappointed” with the bill.

The plan “appears to be grounded in the flawed notion that we can simply borrow and spend our way back to prosperity,” he said.

Some analysts are concerned that the proposed House stimulus package comes with too few strings attached and would relieve states and school districts from making the kinds of tough budget choices that could ultimately bolster student achievement.

“Tough budget times can actually be helpful, in that they provide political cover for districts to do difficult but important things, such as removing staff that are ineffective,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank in Washington, and a former Education Department official under the outgoing administration.

But officials in school districts contemplating budget cuts say that extra federal money couldn’t come soon enough.

“It’s very exciting,” said Judith Johnson, the superintendent of the 3,000-student Peekskill, N.Y., school district, referring to the prospect of new aid.

“Our school district has been dramatically affected” by the economic recession, she said.

The district is facing a $4 million shortfall in a $74 million budget, in part because of cuts in state aid. It is contemplating laying off about 55 employees, including teachers, and slashing enrichment programs, Ms. Johnson said.

“If the stimulus money comes our way,” she said, “we have a priority list of what goes back into the budget.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as Stimulus Plan Aids Education

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