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Education Reporter

Economic Stimulus Package Will Profoundly Impact Education
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On February 17, President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (known as the Stimulus). Only three Republican senators voted for the bill. It passed the House without any Republican votes. The bill designates a total of $128.2 billion for education and job training. About $91 billion of that amount goes toward K-12 education, including $53.6 billion in aid for K-12 for states that are in a deficit, $13 billion for schools serving low-income children, and $12 billion for special education. Another $2.1 billion goes toward Head Start and Early Head Start, the federal programs for children from birth to age five.

Experts on both Left and Right agree that this massive influx of federal aid will remove even more control of education from local and state governments, transferring the balance of power further toward the federal level. "It not only makes it more legitimate for the federal government to ask for accountability," said Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy, "It also [opens up] the question of what should the feds be doing to help schools." Dan Lips, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said that the stimulus bill's provisions mean that more education decisions will ultimately be made in Washington, D.C. (Los Angeles Times, 2-13-09)

The law vastly increases the power of Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Duncan will now control $100 billion in "emergency aid" for public schools and colleges, which he can distribute basically however he likes. That amount more than doubles the Department of Education's budget. $59 billion of the sum is designated for "stabilization," to stop education cuts in states that are low on funds. Governors who wish to receive stabilization funds must promise Duncan that they are following a number of steps outlined in the bill, including creating statewide databases to track every individual student, and assigning experienced teachers evenly across wealthy and poor districts. (New York Times, 2-16-09)

Republicans, even those who supported each of the individual federal programs receiving billions of dollars of new funding, questioned the basis for the new funding. "The question is: Do [these programs] stimulate the economy? How?" asked Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi. Cochran is the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. "Is it realistic to expect funding levels for these programs to revert to today's levels once the economy recovers? I think it is safe to expect just the opposite," said Cochran.

"If we're looking to stimulate the economy, simply dramatically increasing federal spending on education isn't the right solution," said the Heritage Foundation's Dan Lips. "This is basically an education budget offering dramatic increases buried in an economic stimulus package."

When the Senate version of the bill scaled back aid for education, the National Education Association teachers union clamored in protest. "We're obviously very upset about the proposed cut," said Randall Moody, the NEA's chief lobbyist. "We think the education part of the package is the crucial part because it will save jobs and put people back to work. We don't understand how they can look at school construction, Head Start, and special education and say that those aren't stimulative."

The House version of the bill subjects Title I money to "maintenance-of-effort" provisions, requiring states to keep up current funding levels for Title I rather than simply replacing state money with federal money from the stimulus package. The final version asks states to fund programs at 2006 levels. Importantly, the bill now also allows the Secretary of Education to waive maintenance-of-effort requirements for Title I, special education, and other programs, for any states he believes may have trouble meeting 2006 funding levels. At least three states, Florida, Nevada, and California, are expected to request and receive extra money under this clause.

Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust, said it is very likely that the replacement of state money for education with federal money will be permanent. "How do you get the state to replace the dollar that they've converted to a federal dollar? That leaves a big problem at the end of this," said Wilkins. (Education Week, 2-11-09)

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