Stimulating Education: States Make Plans for Funds
By Mary Branham Dusenberry, CSG Managing Editor
The Title One schools in Anchorage, Alaska, need preschools.
“In those Title One schools, we know are the neediest kids,” Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau told State News. “They don’t start school ready to learn.”
She’s hoping to use money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to start preschool programs in those schools. But those plans are on hold.
Gov. Sarah Palin last week said she would not request about 30 percent of the federal stimulus money for which Alaska is eligible—and the education funds Comeau and other superintendents hoped to use for a variety of projects are part of that money.
Palin has her reasons. She wrote to a concerned parent, “I have to certify that every dollar we apply for will legitimately create new jobs and stimulate the economy,” according to a press release from the governor’s office. “I can’t certify that fact until the legislature is comfortable with what education’s fiscal landscape will look like if we apply for the funds, grow more programs, hire teachers but then have to lay them off if the legislature isn’t willing to continue funding.”
Comeau said, though, that she views the funds from the stimulus package in the same way as she does grant funding: “If we get the results we think we will … then I think it would be wise to continue those programs and do away with other programs.”
Some states, including Alaska, have the luxury of planning other uses for the state stabilization funding in the stimulus bill, according to Scott Montgomery, deputy executive director for the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit organization of heads of state departments of elementary and secondary education, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
The stimulus funding comes with strings—states must use 81.8 percent of the funds to restore state support to primary, secondary and higher education to the greater of two funding levels: either the 2008 or the 2009 fiscal year levels, according to a CSG report from Lathem & Watkins.
“What a lot of states are using a big chunk of those funds for is keeping teachers in the classroom,” Montgomery said. “That’s the number one concern, especially for states with serious budget shortfalls.
“Some states have the luxury of not having a shortfall so they have options for additional uses of the money,” he said.
Several states are looking at expanding early childhood education and extending the school day or the school year, according to Montgomery. Some pilot programs across the country would address professional development and teacher training.
In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Beebe plans to use some federal stimulus money to make school buildings more energy-efficient, according to The Weather Channel. Beebe has that luxury: Arkansas hasn’t cut school funding so it can use some of the federal money to update buildings, the article said.
In Georgia, state officials plan to use some of the stimulus funding to help struggling charter schools, which could also benefit later from the “Race to the Top” funding in the package, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
“Race to the Top,” available through the competitive grant process, offers states $5 billion to improve education quality and results statewide. States making progress on four reform goals and effectively using other stimulus funding will be eligible for the grants. According to the U.S. Department of Education, $650 million of that money will be used for an “Invest in What Works and Innovation” fund. It will be available to districts and nonprofit groups with a track record of results.
“Those funds have huge implications for transforming the practice of education around standards and assessments and teacher distribution,” Montgomery said. “Those funds can drive a lot of changes.”
But those dollars will come later. Now, states and school officials are looking at the initial phase of funding.
In Alaska, Comeau and others were surprised by the governor’s initial rejection of the funds.
“We just felt this was a real opportunity particularly in areas of Title One and special education and the enhanced opportunities to work with the neediest students for the next few years,” Comeau said.
Palin has backed off somewhat from an outright rejection of the stimulus funds. She said she wants to make sure any new federal dollars complement what Alaska has done in education during her term.
For her part, Comeau hopes Palin gets that assurance soon. Legislators in both the House and Senate have introduced bills to accept the funding.
“We really need this funding to keep good quality education and improve the graduation rate and reduce the dropout rate,” she said.