School districts, get ready to reform -- and innovate: The federal government has released its first round of money under the economic-stimulus package, an estimated $44 billion intended to relieve severe budget shortfalls, stem teacher cuts, and improve education.
But although states and school districts are expected to use the money to support basic education services, the feds have made it clear they also want to see reform. And the government, in disbursing the bulk of the money in this first of two rounds of major funding, requires assurances it will be spent wisely -- or else: Uncle Sam won't write additional checks without promises of reform now and proof of it later.
For the first batch of state stabilization money -- $32.5 billion out of a $53.6 billion total -- governors have to complete a fairly uncomplicated 13-page application that explains how they'll spend it and maintain their efforts. They also have to promise to do four things:
- Raise academic standards.
- Create more transparent data-collection and data-reporting systems.
- Distribute good teachers to low-performing schools.
- Invest in transforming the worst-performing schools.
The monies should go out to the states two weeks after applications are received and OKed by the federal government.
School districts then apply to their states, and those that receive funds will be encouraged to spend them in ways that meet those four core criteria. These are some of the U.S. Department of Education's suggestions:
- Extend before-school and after-school programs and even extend the school year to help poor-performing students.
- Use online courses to supplement high school students' curriculum.
- Establish evaluation systems for teachers that reward good teachers and fire bad ones.
- Set up data systems to assess student progress and train teachers on how they can use that data.
- Offer training for teachers in reading that "aggressively" works on improving students' vocabulary skills or helps teachers work on academic problems in their classrooms.
There's been a lot of skepticism from educators, parents, lawmakers, and concerned citizens about the stimulus money. Some worry it's a short-term fix, and that teacher jobs will be saved today, only to be lost later when the money runs out. Others think it will fund pet projects and never really make it into the classroom in meaningful ways.
U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan seems to get those concerns, and he has pledged to track every single dollar. If states and districts act in bad faith and fail to spend money with an eye toward reform and restoration of essential programs and staff, they'll forfeit the second round of funds, expected mid-summer. "We're going to come down like a ton of bricks," Duncan says.
To get the second round of money, states have to offer proof that they've made strides in those four core areas, and the Department of Education wants public input. It plans to post its proposed application and guidelines for the second round of funding in the Federal Register, the daily newspaper of the federal government -- and then field the public's response.
Alexandra R. Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.