Education: Dressed & Ready for Stimulation

Photograph by David Wahl

Photograph by David Wahl

The National Access Network has highlighted the U.S. Department of Educations (USDOE) Office of the Inspector General’s report that has raised concerns over states’ use of stimulus funds.

The American Renewal and Recovery Act (ARRA) statute requires states to provide several assurances, including commitments to fund K-12 and higher education at least at FY 2006 levels and to promote reform in four areas, in order to receive these monies. The report noted however, that several states have capitalized on the flexibility of the funding requirements, to use stimulus funds to supplant rather than supplement education budgets. On AMPS we have highlighted this same issue for Wisconsin on a number of occasions, see here and here.

The department’s report contended that it has made an effort to close some funding loopholes by including funding maintenance as a consideration for awarding the so-called “Race to the Top” funds.

Equity advocates, however, have argued that this provision does not do enough, as the guidelines focus on proportional levels of funding rather than absolute figures. That is, the regulations leave the door open for states to cut the total budget from year-to-year and remain competitive applicants.

As the Access Network has noted:

The information the states have submitted raises serious questions about whether the stated purposes of the Act – stabilizing education funding, facilitating the continuation of equity and adequacy formula adjustments and promoting education reforms to boost student achievement – are being met. The goal of boosting student achievement is to be promoted through commitments from each state to promote four essential areas of reform: 1) improving teacher effectiveness; 2) making progress toward college and career-ready standards and rigorous assessments; 3) enhancing data systems to track educational practice; and 4) improving achievement in low-performing schools.

Only the first of these three goals appears to have been achieved. Virtually all of the states have stabilized their funding levels for FY 2010 at the previous years level, with the application of the federal stimulus funds. (In many instances, however, this flat funding will nevertheless result in substantial cuts in educational services since mandatory cost increases will not be covered.)

In the vastly underfunded state education systems throughout the country, stabilizing funding levels may have been

unduly emphasized at the expense of the equity and reform goals of the ARRA, as some states apparently increased their anticipated education deficits upon learning that substantial federal funding for education was in the offing, in order to limit planned cuts in other areas of the budget. Although some officials might argue that such maneuvers represented prudent budget planning, from the perspective the intent of the ARRA and the constitutional pre-eminence given to education in most state constitutions, such maneuvers clearly raise serious legal issues.

A number of advocates for educational equity have called on the DOE to require states to fund low performing schools at adequate levels. The way the current regulations are drafted, only one provision has a focus on this kind of funding. The Campaign for Educational Equity for example, has proposed a requirement that states need to provide data that shows to what extent the proportion of each state’s budget devoted to education for FY 2009 either increased, decreased or remained the same compared to FY 2008. The assumption is that those states who have maintained or increased educational funding during the last fiscal year would receive some favorable consideration in the review process for doing so. But additionally, the campaign has argued that any reform conditions that seek to assist struggling schools should include specifically the various resources identified through adequacy case law that are deemed necessary comprehensive services for students from poverty backgrounds. Further, they’ve advocated for the DOE to require states to increase their total and per pupil state and local revenues that meet the average levels of all states, or if the state is more affluent, then maintain their current funding levels. That requirement would also include states having to allocate higher levels of funding to school districts with higher levels of poverty. The DOE is meant to issue final guidelines quite shortly and grant applications will then be due and phase 1 monies will be distrubuted in early 2010.

Exactly where Wisconsin is on the supplanting vs. supplementing continuum remains to be seen. A report card from this July of each state can be found here. We’ll keep you posted.

Robert Godfrey

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, AMPS, Arne Duncan, Best Practices, Budget, Equity, finance, National News, School Finance, We Are Not Alone

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