Programs serving the nation’s economically disadvantaged students and those with disabilities are receiving massive funding boosts through the federal stimulus package—$13 billion for Title I aid and $11.3 billion for special education—but how school districts choose to use the money may set them up for problems when it dries up.
The fiscal fallout from the recession has forced many districts to use part of the stimulus money for short-term budget fixes, such as filling in funding gaps and avoiding layoffs. Those uses contrast with the kinds of one-time investments for technology, training, school improvement programs, and infrastructure that advocates and federal education officials say would have a long-term payoff.
“All we can do is deal with the money we have now,” said Lydia L. Ramos, a spokeswoman for the 680,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. “This is education’s [Hurricane] Katrina coming down the road in two years when stimulus funding runs out. It’s really scary. We are going to take a hit, and it’s ugly.”
A report released in December by the Government Accountability Office said 25 percent of local education agencies planned to use more than half of their stimulus money to preserve jobs under Title I, while 19 percent planned to use more than half the money for job retention in special education programs.
Advocates contend that applying the stimulus money to preventing layoffs or filling budget gaps won’t have the desired impact on Title I or special education programs.
“I’m wondering, if the money is used to prevent layoffs, how much is really available for school innovation?” said Nancy Reder, the deputy executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. “Some of the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] funding is going for technology. That’s the kind of thing that can be used for a one-time purchase. Using stimulus funding for continuing expenses like salaries—everybody’s concerned about what will happen, given the budget crisis in general.”
But school officials on the front lines of the budget crisis say they don’t have a choice. The Los Angeles district, which received an additional $312 million for the Title I program from the stimulus law, is putting the money toward restoring positions that were cut from the budget, Ms. Ramos said.
“Without the stimulus funding, some teachers [at some Title I schools] might have received March 15 pink slips,” Ms. Ramos said. “But the schools were able to buy back some positions with the stimulus funding that were otherwise cut in the budget. For schools without Title I designation, they lost positions.”
The budget pressures make it challenging to heed the guidance of federal education officials, who advise schools to use the stimulus money without treading near the “funding cliff”—when the two-year infusion of stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is no longer available.
“Given the current economic conditions and the resulting uncertainty about the levels of state and local funding that will be available for education over the next few years, it is particularly important for local education agencies to consider how to improve productivity and how to invest stimulus funds in ways that are likely to enhance effectiveness and efficiency,” Alexa Posny, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services at the U.S. Department of Education, wrote in an e-mail. “Decisionmakers should consider, among other issues, if the proposed use of funds will avoid the cliff and improve productivity.”
When Congress increases special education funding, the IDEA lets eligible districts reduce local special education funding by half of the federal funding increase. Local districts can instead use that money for other general education purposes.
Indeed, many school officials have decided to redirect some of the stimulus money designated for special education programs to their general education budgets to cope with the effects of the poor economy. The GAO report showed that 44 percent of local education agencies surveyed planned to use the provision in the IDEA law that gives them flexibility to decrease spending on students with disabilities.
Ms. Ramos of the Los Angeles district said for its $152 million in special education stimulus money for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, the district is taking advantage of the flexibility to use half the money to help bridge overall budget shortfalls. The rest can be spent on programs to improve special education, she said.
The district is using stimulus money for a leadership academy that provides mentoring to special education administrators, teaching them how to write good individualized education programs for students with disabilities, evaluate whether their schools have good special education programs, and understand how to know whether students are making improvements, said Sharyn Howell, the executive director of special education for the Los Angeles schools.
Other stimulus money for special education will be used for assistive technology, such as communication devices, digital interactive textbooks, and software to ease access to core curricula, she said.
Los Angeles is also using stimulus money, Ms. Howell said, to start a program to improve students’ behavior. The district plans to hire a cadre of teachers and paraprofessionals to provide behavior-improvement techniques to teachers, parents, and students in preschool and elementary grades.
If the schools can address the issue of behavior more effectively, the district will have less need for costly private intervention services, and the savings from ending a reliance on private services will help pay for the behavior program, Ms. Howell said.
Nationally, the windfall for special education from the economic-stimulus law has, for now, brought federal aid levels nearly up to what policymakers and special educators term “full funding,” or 40 percent of the average per-pupil cost for education. That level of federal support has been a longtime goal of special education advocates, who view it as an unkept promise.
The 2009 legislation increased funding for IDEA grants to states to 34 percent of the average per-student cost. Without it, IDEA grants are funded at around 17 percent, and federal funding has never before exceeded 18 percent of the national average per-pupil cost.
Advocates hope the infusion of money will renew political momentum for a commitment to full funding when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is reauthorized.
“What’s happened now is wonderful, but it is a short-term solution to a long-term problem,” said Patti Ralabate, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association. “The federal government promised us full funding 30 years ago and never met that commitment. When these funds dry up, there will still be 6 million kids in special education who need this money.”
Increases in the number of children needing special education have created a need, meanwhile, for new teachers, and some school leaders are tapping the federal aid to hire them.
The 3,500-student Derry Township School District in Hershey, Pa., is using some stimulus money to hire a new special education teacher at a salary of $45,000 a year. The district’s special education population has grown to 450 students, compared with 371 five years ago.
“For the short term, it helps us offset the cost we are going to have to bear anyway,” Dan Tredinnick, a spokesman for the Derry Township district, said of the extra money. “It made hiring the teacher easier to do sooner than later.
“We are going to need to find a regular funding stream when this money runs out,” he continued. “It delays the pain, but is not a silver bullet.”
The district also has spent $56,000 for software designed to improve literacy skills, but has not yet figured out how to spend the rest of its $500,000 in special education stimulus money.
In Pennsylvania, expenditures of stimulus money by local education departments must be approved and reimbursed by intermediate agencies, and the Derry Township district in Hershey has been conservative in drawing up its spending plans. School districts have until Sept. 30, 2011, to obligate the funds or they will lose the money.
“We want to be careful,” Mr. Tredinnick said. “We are not going wild. We are not on a spending spree. We want to make sure it’s used wisely.”
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 February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Title I, Spec. Ed. Aid Casts Long Shadow