Administrators Using ARRA Funds to Plug Budget Holes, Survey Finds

Published October 14, 2009

According to a new survey of school districts by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), districts have not been using federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding to spur innovative school reform.

The Department of Education states that along with saving jobs, reform is one of the key goals of the ARRA, particularly the $4.35 billion Race to the Top portion. In August, AASA surveyed 160 school system leaders nationwide to determine how their districts were spending ARRA funds It found the money was being used primarily to fill budget holes and save teaching and staff positions.

The report, “Schools and the Stimulus: How America’s Public School Districts are Using ARRA Funds,” notes in addition to paying teacher and staff salaries, ARRA funds are being used for professional development and classroom supplies. Professional development ranked first among uses for funds distributed for both ARRA Title I and Individuals with Disability in Education Act (IDEA) programs.

AASA reports the lack of flexibility in the use of ARRA funds has hindered innovative reform. Administrators surveyed in the report said the one-time infusion of funding through ARRA makes it difficult to spur reform since the money is primarily being used to “backfill budget cuts.” Administrators expressed concern over the future “funding cliff” once ARRA dollars run out.

Misused Money

According to the report, 79 percent of administrators have already received Title I funding in the ARRA, and 94 percent have received IDEA funding. However, the AASA survey reveals administrators believe the ARRA funding has led to a “heightened level of bureaucracy and reporting that limits their time and ability to implement education reform and innovation.”

“AASA members have voiced both appreciation for and concerns with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” said AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech. “While they remain committed to their daily efforts to advance education reform and innovation, the current economic realities have severely limited their ability to use stimulus dollars for anything beyond filling budget holes.

“The stimulus funds are helping schools save teaching and staff positions. However, less than half of the school leaders we surveyed were able to save core subject teaching positions using ARRA dollars,” he continued. “Some districts simply don’t have the dollars to save or hire teachers, because they are using the funds to fill other budget shortfalls. Other districts cannot justify hiring new staff using one-time funds, because they will not be able to sustain the positions once the funding goes away.”

Local Control Urged

U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) said he is concerned about whether ARRA funds will foster lasting education reform.

“There is an age-old question about whether injecting money into the education system grows an already massive, multilayered system or generates restructuring,” McKeon said. “Judging from all the data I have seen over the years, starting as a school board member and throughout my time as the chairman and ranking member of the Education and Labor Committee, the short answer is that funds must focus on results, temporary funds can create more challenges, and parents and teachers should be at the helm.”

McKeon was also concerned about ARRA funds being used to fill budget gaps as the AASA survey found.

“Considering the most recent stimulus deposit into education, which I realize was provided with the most benevolent of intentions, we are unfortunately seeing a pattern of administrators simply plugging budget gaps and temporarily maintaining or hiring additional staff,” McKeon said. “The federal government and bureaucrats can’t know what’s best for every school in America. Therefore, true reform should focus on local control that bolsters teachers and parents to strengthen individual school districts, not on federal dollars tied to red tape and mandates.”

Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a research assistant in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.