More cuts to trail education stimulus
BY MICHELE MCNEIL Hechinger Report/Education Writers Association
Sunday, February 20, 2011
2/20/11 at 8:48 AM
Read more about the schools’ use of federal stimulus money, including an online exclusive story.
Editor's note: The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education news outlet, and the Education Writers Association partnered with 36 news outlets - including the Tulsa World - in 27 states to investigate the impact of nearly $100 billion in education stimulus funding. Interviewing scores of students, teachers, researchers and education officials at all levels of government, participating reporters set out to determine how the nation's schools are actually spending the money and whether the changes it sparks are likely to last.
The economic stimulus package that Congress passed two years ago this week preserved hundreds of thousands of jobs in the nation's public schools, but the future of many of those positions remains in jeopardy.
Nearly $100 billion was used to fund 367,524 education-related jobs during the 2009-10 academic year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Though this tally includes jobs saved and created, observers say states and school districts did not go on a hiring spree with their stimulus funds. Instead, they hunkered down to prevent mass layoffs - no small feat given the historic recession and soaring budget deficits that resulted.
"We saved 350,000 jobs. How often do you get to do that in life?" Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview. "I think it helped to stave off a total disaster."
Still, the stimulus funding didn't seem like a windfall to many school districts.
That's because many recession-battered states cut education funding and used federal stimulus money to back-fill those budgetary holes.
In a report by the American Association of School Administrators last April, 87 percent of districts reported that they saw no net increase in funding despite the stimulus package.
A March 2010 report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell came to a similar conclusion: Stimulus funds largely subsidized the existing workforce because adding new staff would have created a funding cliff when the money runs out.
And that is quickly happening.
Districts have less than one-quarter of their stimulus funds remaining, which means jobs for thousands of teachers, aides, janitors and consultants hang in the balance.
States must now figure out how to keep these education workers on the payroll. Helping temporarily is an additional $10 billion that Congress approved in August for educator jobs through the Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act.
Even so, 13 states are making a combined $1 billion in unexpected midyear cuts to K-12 education this year, according to a report by the National Association of State Budget Officials and the National Governors Association.
It doesn't get better next budget year, when nearly half of the states are expecting overall budget gaps. And in 2013, 17 states are still predicting shortfalls.
According to the Education Commission of the States, which tracks and analyzes state education policies, it will take up to three years before states fully recover.
"Even with stimulus money, districts had to make pretty large cuts," said Michael Griffith, a fiscal analyst with ECS. "The money prevented them from cutting muscle and bone."
Even though the stimulus saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, school districts still had to lay off teachers.
Tim Daly, executive director of the New Teacher Project, a teacher-training organization, lamented that there was little movement to change how teachers are laid off.
Rather than getting rid of poorly performing teachers, most districts are bound by union contracts to lay off the most recently hired teachers first.
The stimulus package "forestalled the conversation about how to redo the workforce with the least harm to kids," Daly said. "We set a precedent that you don't have to change the way you do layoffs in a financial crisis."
But the country's two main teachers' unions claim there are merits to protecting teachers with seniority.
"With the end of the stimulus funding, we're seeing efforts to pit one teacher against the other by trying to cut those with experience since they tend to earn more," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. Instead of focusing on how districts do layoffs, she said "let's (improve teaching) by developing a fair and comprehensive teacher evaluation system, which would make seniority-based layoffs moot."
National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said experienced teachers are valuable and that "in no other profession is experience deemed a liability rather than an asset."
To expect school districts to dramatically change how they do business in such a short time frame may be unrealistic, said Karen Hawley Miles, executive director of Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit group that works with large urban districts to improve student learning.
Still, she pointed to districts that are focusing on retaining the right people in the classroom.
That includes the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina, which was able to conduct layoffs based in part on merit.
"But those who were able to really seize it (stimulus funding) as a transformational moment are in the minority," she said. "Moving these behemoth organizations takes a long time."
The Oklahoma State Department of Education allocated $116,979,826 to school districts through the state's school funding formula.
According to federal law, school districts have the flexibility of spending all, some or none of the funds this fiscal year. By federal law, school districts must spend all funds by September 30, 2012.
Michele McNeil is an assistant editor covering federal education policy at Education Week.