As the U.S. Senate debates the economic-stimulus package, educators are already planning how they might spend the extra money.
The $150 billion targeted for education (including postsecondary schooling and preschool) would double the federal Department of Education's current budget. And the money might come just in time, as the slumping economy includes a drop in the sales tax and property tax revenues on which education depends. At least 25 states have made or plan to make cuts to education funding.
"It's essential that the federal government step in and try to make sure that we do not have a collapse of our elementary and secondary education system," says U.S. representative George Miller (D-California), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
A final decision on the $819 billion-dollar stimulus package is expected within the next couple of weeks.
Exactly how the money will benefit schools and students isn't clear, because the federal government generally doles out money with the expectation that state and local governments will decide how to spend it. It is, however, expected to restore some state cuts that included prekindergarten programs, teacher training, and specialists like reading-recovery teachers, and to fund school staff positions that might otherwise be lost.
Still, though educators hope the stimulus money will be more than a short-term boost, some are doubtful about whether there's enough sustained funding to spur true education reform. New money in the package for Title I, for instance, isn't expected to become the baseline for the way the program will be funded in the future.
"The road ahead is pretty uncertain," says Jen Rinehart, vice president for policy and research at the Afterschool Alliance.
Among the plans in the stimulus package:
- $79 billion to restore education cuts to local school districts and public colleges and universities.
- $17 billion for school repairs, technology upgrades, and support for homeless students.
- $26.5 billion for K-12 schools, including special education and Title I funding, which helps high-poverty schools.
- $2 billion for Head Start and Early Head Start.
The Classroom Budget
So, how do educators think the money should be spent?
Aloha Keylor, an English as a Second Language teacher at Highland View Elementary School, in Silver Spring, Maryland, wants money for professional development restored. The State of Maryland cut spending, so, to attend a conference, teachers like Keylor have to take a personal day and pay all their costs.
She'd also like to see money for parent outreach, education specialists, such as reading-recovery teachers, and after-school programs.
"I keep a hopeful attitude," she says about whether federal money will trickle down, but she adds, "I'll believe it when I see something concrete."
The Afterschool Alliance's Jen Rinehart hopes after-school programs can tap into the funding slated for Title I. Right now, 6.5 million children participate in after-school programs, but she says an additional 15 million kids would be in a program if it were available to them.
"Funding for after school is very tenuous," Rinehart says. "We often see programs started up and programs closing."
Jim Rex, superintendent of South Carolina's schools, says his state has a number of needs, including a court mandate to do more with early-childhood education. "We have been pushing for universal four-year-old kindergarten for at-risk kids," Rex adds. "We'd be delighted if the stimulus plan helped us move that forward."
Alexandra Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.