Stimulus Funding for States Could Bolster Status Quo

Published June 1, 2009

Education funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law this winter by President Barack Obama, includes spending for pre-K-12 programs and specifically allocates $2.1 billion in additional funding for Head Start programs, among other initiatives.

Some in the education community fear the funding could hinder meaningful reform.

“About $5 billion will go into a secretary’s discretionary fund, which could be used wisely. But funding may also be used to water down state academic standards by imposing so-called twenty-first-century skills—learning in groups, media literacy, and the like,” noted Bill Evers, former assistant secretary of policy at the U.S. Department of Education from 2007 to 2009.

“The money may also be used to water down testing by creating project-based tests or a statewide system of portfolios of student work or other similar less-valid, less-reliable approaches. Weakened in these ways, these accountability tools might well then become federally sponsored national tests and standards. [About $100 billion] will be used to perpetuate existing unproductive operations of American public education—in other words, $100 billion to subsidize the disappointing status quo,” Evers concluded.

The U.S. Department of Education reports the stimulus bill made $100 million available for Impact Aid school construction grants. Additional funding also was made available for the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), including $11.3 billion in state grants, $400 million in preschool grants, and $500 million for families of infants. Of the $100 billion provided for in the Recovery Act, $53.6 billion goes directly to the State Fiscal Stabilization fund to help states avoid cuts in education funding.

Big Money

Education Secretary Arne Duncan publicized the allocation of economic stimulus funding targeted to education in early spring. On April 1, Duncan announced the availability of $44 billion for states and their school systems, including $32.6 billion as part of the State Stabilization Fund. The other $11.4 billion of the $44 billion released in April includes provisions for Title I, IDEA, and other programs.

The remaining funds provided by the State Stabilization Fund for education will be made available later in 2009.

On April 13 the Education Department announced the release of $108.8 million in economic stimulus funding for school construction and programs for homeless students. Approximately $69.2 million goes to Homeless Children and Youth Grants, and the remaining $39.6 million is reserved for Impact Aid Construction Grants for school construction such as remodeling old facilities or building new facilities.

Questionable Value

Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Virginia, questions whether the infusion of billions of dollars—the largest one-time investment in U.S. education ever—will actually improve student achievement.

“The Obama administration is saying all the right things about using the federal stimulus funds to leverage meaningful educational reforms. But while they can talk the talk, it’s not clear if they can walk the walk,” said Petrilli.

“So far, we taxpayers have shelled out 12 figures to bail out our education system, and all we’ve gotten in return are some vague ‘assurances’ from governors that they will make progress on data systems, standards, teacher quality, and interventions in failing schools. To date it looks like a very poor ‘investment,'” Petrilli added.

Sanford Rejects Swag, Strings

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), who rejected $700 million in funding for his state that would have been provided through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, worries about the effect the legislation will have on educational control in other states.

“Leaving aside for a moment what a truly destructive decision passing the stimulus bill at the federal level ultimately was, it’s made even worse by the way states are hamstrung from making decisions that best suit their needs,” Sanford explained.

“If Washington is serious about improving educational outcomes in South Carolina and elsewhere,” Sanford continued, “we need to be free to use those federal dollars on things like private and public choice so parents can pick the educational setting that works best for their kids.”

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