Taking Off The Rose-Colored Glasses

States Benefit Differently from Education Recovery Spending

States are getting different amounts of money for education spending from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and those most in need may not be getting what they need, writes Raegen Miller.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivers a speech during the Puerto Rico Education Summit in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, October 17, 2011. The U.S. Department of Education is focusing its innovation energy on improving student achievement and increasing graduation rates. (AP/Ricardo Arduengo)
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivers a speech during the Puerto Rico Education Summit in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, October 17, 2011. The U.S. Department of Education is focusing its innovation energy on improving student achievement and increasing graduation rates. (AP/Ricardo Arduengo)

Not a dozen weeks have passed since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was lauded far and wide for its large investment in the short-term economic health and long-term reform of public schools. Balancing the act’s two goals was always going to be complicated, even though the argument for a one-time federal injection of roughly $100 billion remains sound, a new report sheds light on how this balancing act may play out, and it doesn’t look good for states that were already having fiscal troubles.

The key fact in the report by Research Associate Professor Marguerite Roza of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell, is that some states are in worse financial shape than others. This is always true to some degree, but it was absent from the party last winter when Congress hammered out the law. Few politicians sensed any advantage in proposing a means test for states, not with a massive, comprehensive rescue package leaving the station in a hurry. That’s understandable enough. But it may turn out that the education reform agenda embraced by the act gets much less traction in states where the financial situation is dire than in ones where it is less so.

The reform-promoting potential of federal stimulus funds may be most at risk in California, where spending on K-12 education for the fiscal year 2010 is projected to be 11.6 percent below the level budgeted for 2009, according to Roza’s analysis. And that’s assuming that 70 percent of the state’s share of stimulus funds for both years is in the spending mix. Alabama also faces a projected double-digit drop in spending, and residents of 19 other states representing all major regions of the country can expect to see a drop in K-12 spending. This also means that the majority of states are looking at a net increase in spending on K-12 education. The increase exceeds 10 percent in Mississippi, Nebraska, Montana, Missouri, and the Dakotas.

The report carefully documents the assumptions behind these projected changes in spending, pictured here.

state education spending

But what do these projections mean for education reform? States in which stimulus funds represent a windfall have an advantage when it comes to leveraging the federal investment to promote reform. The less money is needed to save current jobs, the more there is available for reform-minded spending of the kinds described in Realigning Resources for District Transformation, a joint publication of the Center for American Progress and Education Resource Strategies. But it’s still not easy to use one-time funds strategically. Doing so cuts against the grain of school districts’ habitual practice of spending money in the same ways that minimize the political and practical discomfort associated with real change. And phones are ringing off the hook at district central offices with calls from vendors promising every manner of service and equipment.

States where the federal bailout leaves water in the boat face even more challenges in driving forward the reform themes embraced by the stimulus bill. School districts in California and other states where spending is projected to fall will be engaged in the painful exercises associated with fiscal retrenchment. Lamentably, these exercises include seniority-based layoffs, a process more like shooting yourself in the foot than promoting reform. Yet dire fiscal conditions might be the catalyst that gets politicians and education officials to push for a real transformation toward spending resources in ways that yield maximum educational benefit for children, as Roza optimistically points out. Let us hope.

Researchers, policymakers, and taxpayers should take into account in several ways the relationship between states’ fiscal situations and the balance between short-term economic and long-term reform goals of the stimulus bill. States may reasonably focus on different mixes of education reform, and they may make progress at different rates. But let there be no equivocation on the four assurances that governors must make as a condition for receiving State Fiscal Stabilization Funds, which represent the bulk of the stimulus funds devoted to education. In particular, states must make progress toward implementing rigorous standards and higher quality assessments, building data systems capable of monitoring continuous improvement, distributing equitably qualified teachers, and creating approaches to supporting chronically under-performing schools.

Federal funds for education have never been so abundant, but states will have to demonstrate progress on the assurances regardless of their fiscal situations. This harsh reality seems like adequate motivation for states to strive for increased efficiency.

Fortunately, there are two potential efficiencies that are completely consistent with the assurances. First, states should be able to reduce the cost of developing standards and assessments by working together. It’s inefficient for each state to reinvent the wheel when it comes to standards and assessments for mathematics, for example. States should also “adopt rigorous standards that are internationally benchmarked,” another compelling reason for efficient collaboration, as Secretary Arne Duncan said at a Center for American Progress conference this week. Working together, states should be able to drive down the costs of elaborating the required data systems.

States face different challenges in leveraging stimulus funds to ensure that all students have access to effective teachers, a notion related to the third assurance. But writing off failure to make progress on this goal because a state is cash-strapped would be tantamount to the “soft bigotry of low-expectations,” a phrase articulated by President George H. W. Bush. His words still provide perhaps the best watchwords for advocates of progressive education reform, even in a new era of responsibility shepherded by a very articulate and progressive President Barack Obama.

More on education and the Recovery Act from CAP:

Report: Realigining Resource for District Transformation

Event: Resource Allocation, Reinvestment, and Education Reform

Raegen Miller is Associate Director for Education Research at the Center for American Progress.

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Raegen Miller

Associate Director, Education Policy