The DeHavilland Blog

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The folly of the stimulus strategy

Struggling with the early impacts of the economic downturn, educators across the country were thrilled to learn that they would receive more than $100 billion over the next two years through the federal government’s stimulus plan. And rightly so: given that funding is going to continue to tighten for the foreseeable future, perhaps substantially, these stimulus funds give educators breathing space to figure out how to operate in this changed environment. As Jack O’Connell, state superintendent of public instruction in California told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s going to mean a softer landing for us.”

But as more information has become available on the desired uses of that money, it has become clear that none of the desired uses of those funds will result in a softer landing at all.

Without going into detail on the many pathways that money is taking into schools (see here for volumes of information on that front), states are being asked to use this money to make progress in four key reform areas (as listed here):

  • Increase teacher effectiveness and address inequities in the distribution of highly qualified teachers
  • Establish and use pre-K through college and career data systems to track progress and foster continuous improvement
  • Make progress toward rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments
  • Support targeted, intensive support and effective interventions to turn around schools identified for corrective action and restructuring

These are all worthy goals, of course – we might even see some kind of uptick in student achievement. And the feds are asking schools not to pursue programs that involve financial commitments beyond the life of the stimulus funds.

But how will pursuing any of these objectives result in a softer landing when the federal money runs out, and when state and local funds for education are likely far lower than they are today?

More effective and better-distributed teachers may in fact result in higher student achievement (assuming we know how to make teachers more effective – the evidence is thin on that front). But how will that help when the money runs dry and we have to let a lot of those teachers go? I hope some of that professional development includes management of larger classes, because they’re going to need it.

Standards and assessments are also worthwhile, but they won’t reduce operating expenses. Similarly, spending the next two years turning around failing schools will do nothing to ease the impact of significantly lower funding in 2011.

Data systems, on the other hand, could in fact reduce operating expenses, if they’re focused on replacing personnel by automating routine tasks. But there’s no evidence that this is the focus.

You would think that the two-year hiatus made possible by the stimulus bill would involve a mandate for finding cost efficiencies, reducing manpower through improved operations, and otherwise preparing for the inevitable. But there’s nothing anywhere in this bill, or in the buzz surrounding it, pointing to the need for systems reengineering, finding alternate sources of support, or anything else.

So after $100 billion in extra federal dollars washes through the system, and we’re left looking at a steep drop in available funds in 2011, how prepared will we be to deal with it? We’ve been given a two-year reprieve to start preparing; I hope educators are taking advantage of that time, whether or not the feds are asking them to.

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