This week Congress will approve the Obama stimulus plan and soon schools will get a big pile of new money for their Title I programs and Special Education programs. How they’ll spend it will depend on current rules and regs, because the stimulus bill doesn’t seem to carry any new guidance.
Of course, those of us in education should be pleased as this new money should mean fewer layoffs for teachers. However, I suspect there will be a couple of problems with these dollars. The first is that I doubt that this assistance will do much for kids. The money isn’t targeted on any improvements, so there probably won’t be any. Schools will be tripping over themselves to push these bucks out the door, and that is not exactly the scenario for quality improvement.
The other big concern is that I will be surprised if this money really represents more dollars for the schools. I think states and cities will reduce the amount of tax support that they are now providing to these institutions and will use the savings to pay for their other responsibilities. In other words, I think the schools will still get cut, but the new arrangement will mean that a larger proportion of school budgets will be coming from the feds. In cities like Chicago, most of the money that they spend already comes from the U.S. government, and this will increase that imbalance.
Two things about federal funding for education: down the road, it will likely mean more federal regulations for schools, something that has been a big point of contention under NCLB, and local governments tend to worry less about quality when it comes to programs funded by the feds. Transferring the responsibility for funding schools to the U.S. government means local school systems will worry less about quality control than they do when using local money (that’s part of the reason large urban districts are often of lower quality than suburban schools—on average school systems get about 9% of their support from the feds, while in places like NYC, Chicago, and Los Angeles, the federal portion is well over half).
We’re not talking about small amounts of money either. When I was director of reading in Chicago, the school budget was $3.5 billion for 437,000 kids; the Bush administration pumped lots of new federal money into the schools, so now Chicago gets about $5 billion for 430,000 kids. And that staggering figure could go up dramatically if the stimulus plan was additional money. What will happen instead will be that the city and state will try to anticipate the amount that the feds are about to add to the mix (and then, they’ll cut their contributions by at least that amount—allowing them to protect their other construction, health, and welfare programs).
This will be like the bankers last fall. They got the new money but didn't increase their lending. The school systems will get this new money, but they're not likely to be in any better position to educate children. Just pumping money into the system won't protect education; you have to have some rules about how that money has to be spent--something that the leadership apparently won't provide.
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