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School districts and states have begun to receive education funds doled out from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA, and many have a simple plan for the money—prevent teacher layoffs and restore current programs that were heading for the chopping block. This plan aligns with the legislation’s intent to address the acute financial problems facing school districts around the country, yet the act’s name points to a greater purpose than simple relief for its substantial, one-time funds. The act’s State Fiscal Stabilization Funds, complemented by a one-time boost to a variety of categorical programs, provide an unprecedented opportunity for districts to advance a strategic agenda: to align and fundamentally restructure their use of resources to improve academic achievement for all students.
In the pages that follow, we provide concrete ideas for strategic spending in three key areas—taking stock of current practices, focusing on support for quality instruction, and making transitional investments—in order to give some guidance to those districts seeking to balance the act’s short-term focus on preserving jobs with its long-term goals of promoting student achievement.
Research on school spending shows that it’s not just how much money a district spends that makes the difference in student learning; it’s how well the resources are used. But districts’ old habits and outdated policies often stymie efforts to redeploy existing resources in more cost-effective ways. By and large, schools still operate on a 180-day agrarian calendar suited to the 19th century, instruction is dispensed in 50 minutes doses irrespective of subject or student need, and teachers practice their craft in isolation from one another. Schools are funded and teacher contracts are based on these outdated visions of how we “do school.”
The imperative to spend ARRA funds quickly poses the enormous risk that states and districts will not invest the time or tackle the political challenges that go along with a fundamental reorganization of how funds are spent. But in fact, the one-time nature of stimulus funding creates the perfect situation for breaking the old habits and developing new paradigms for effective spending. Districts should consider using one-time funds to facilitate a new way of doing business, one in which all resources are allocated to support long-term goals for students. Concrete ways of spending money fall under three thematic headings:
- Take stock of current practices.
- Focus on supporting quality instruction.
- Make transitional investments.
The Department of Education’s guidance on the use of state Fiscal Stabilization Funds explicitly allows the use of dollars for activities like long-range planning and data analysis, as well as investment to support new ways of working. The need to invest effort and money to help restructure the way existing resources are used may not seem as obvious in the face of short-term fiscal concerns. However, access to future stabilization dollars, especially those offered on competitive basis, will be contingent on districts and states providing evidence of strong commitment to bold reforms. In particular, $5 billion in stabilization funds will be awarded by the Secretary of Education on a competitive basis—$4.35 billion for the Race to the Top program; $650 million for What Works and Innovation program. Evidence of serious attention to redesigning resource use to be more strategic will likely bolster state and districts’ applications for competitive funds.
Read the full report (pdf)