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Stimulus package aims to fund change in nation's schools

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 | 5:37 p.m. CST

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama wants to do more than save teachers' jobs or renovate classrooms with his economic recovery bill. He wants to transform the federal government's role in education.

Public schools will get an unprecedented amount of money — double the education budget under George W. Bush — from the stimulus bill in the next two years. With those dollars, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan want schools to do better.

From Duncan's perspective, the sheer size of the stimulus bill makes it a once-in-a-lifetime chance to put lasting reforms in place.

"It's also an opportunity to redefine the federal role in education, something we're thinking a whole lot about," Duncan said recently. "How can we move from being about compliance with bureaucracy to really the engine of innovation and change?"

Money and latitude

The bill includes a $5 billion fund solely for these innovations, an amount that might not seem like much, considering the bill's $787 billion price tag. But it is massive compared with the $16 million in discretionary money Duncan's predecessors got each year for their own priorities.

"It's unprecedented that a secretary would have this much money and this much latitude," said Charlie Barone, director of federal policy for the group Democrats for Education Reform.

Congress laid out broad guidelines for the fund in the stimulus bill that became law on Tuesday. But it will be up to Duncan, and the team of advisers he is assembling, to decide how to dole out the money. They have until Oct. 1, when the next fiscal year begins, to start distributing the dollars.

What would the fund pay for? Rewarding states and school districts that are making big progress.

The cost of making progress

For example, Tennessee recently overhauled its graduation requirements and academic standards as it works to boost student achievement. As part of that effort, officials want more rigorous state tests; Tennessee has been criticized because students pass state exams with flying colors, yet they do poorly on well-regarded national tests. Better tests cost money.

Or in California, school officials would like to expand the ConnectEd curricula, now in 16 high schools, that links academics to actual work in aerospace, biomedicine and other careers. The program is aimed at getting students ready for college and keeping them from dropping out.

It doesn't come cheaply; teacher training, equipment and technical help all are costly.

"We ought to be able to take what's working in the very best schools and make that common practice across all schools," said Ted Mitchell, president of California's state board of education.

Signs of progress

To get the money, states will have to show they are making good progress in four areas:

  • Boosting teacher effectiveness and getting more good teachers into high-poverty, high-minority schools;
  • Setting up data systems to track how much a student has learned from one year to the next;
  • Improving academic standards and tests;
  • Supporting struggling schools.

Also, at the urging of Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, the fund sets aside $650 million for school districts or districts in partnership with nonprofit groups. This could include charter schools or other programs with a track record of boosting achievement.

The nation's schools are in trouble. Three in five kids can't read or do math at their grade level. One in four kids drops out of high school. Internationally, the U.S. is losing ground as other countries surge ahead in math and science.

"There is so much at stake today," Duncan said. "We're going to have significantly more resources than we have ever had. We need to use every penny of that wisely."

Experience in Chicago

Duncan has experience at turning schools around. He spent the past seven years running Chicago public schools, an urban district with high dropout rates and hundreds of low-performing schools. Under Duncan, federal dollars helped create new programs that tie teacher bonuses to student performance and bring professionals from other careers into teaching and helped start more charter schools.

Those are the sort of ideas the Obama administration wants to encourage with the new fund. Duncan views the infusion as crucial because with huge budget deficits that threaten to slash funding for schools, there may be little left over at the state level for innovation.

The ideas are not new. The No Child Left Behind education law was supposed to address the education crisis by closing the gap between minority and poor children who are driving the low achievement numbers and white students in more affluent schools.

But some ideas have been controversial. For example, teachers' unions have resisted performance pay for teachers — raises based in some measure on student test scores — though some have begun to accept it.

Giving teachers a say

Unions are watching closely to see how the fund is spent. The bill itself gives wide latitude over how the dollars are handed out, and unions want to make sure teachers have a seat at the table.

"We would certainly hope there is some requirement that the state has to collaborate with teachers' organizations in the state in deciding what to do with the money," said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, the biggest teachers' union.

And Republicans, who like Duncan's ideas for fixing schools, argued against the fund because its main goal is not to create jobs right away. They also criticized the massive infusion the bill makes to No Child Left Behind and special education programs, spending that will be difficult to cut once the economy is back on track.

"I don't like it," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., himself a former education secretary.

"Now, most people in education are delighted to get the money," Alexander told university presidents in Washington last week. "I think the stimulus package ought to be for programs that create jobs now, that stimulate the housing industry. And then we ought to take up the long-term investments that we make."

 


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