Washington Post: Stimulus Funds to Reach Schools Within Weeks

By Daniel de Vise

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced yesterday that nearly $44 billion in federal stimulus aid to schools will be available to states in the next 30 to 45 days — soon enough, education officials hope, to prevent hundreds of thousands of layoffs nationwide and program cuts that would hit home in schools across the Washington region.

‘This is really a chance to avert an educational catastrophe and to save a generation of kids,’ Duncan said.

An additional $49 billion will be distributed within six months, Duncan said, as he released a series of funding guidelines that had been eagerly awaited by states and school systems.

Of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed by President Obama last month, about $100 billion will go to education, with $3.8 billion reaching the District, Maryland and Virginia. Much of the money falls into three broad categories: Title I, the venerable federal program to bolster the education of economically disadvantaged children; special education, for those with disabilities; and state fiscal stabilization funds, a one-time investment to help states balance budgets without mass layoffs or program cuts.

Virginia is using $365 million of its $2 billion in stimulus aid to erase cuts that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) had proposed in his original budget for the next fiscal year, and a like amount to avert cuts in the following year.

Maryland, slated for $1.5 billion in education aid, will use $721 million to close gaps in the state education budget over the next two years. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said the state’s 24 school systems will be ‘made whole’ when the cuts are removed.

‘The stabilization money couldn’t have come at a better time,’ said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. ‘Title I funds target our neediest schools, and [special education] funding is aimed at our most vulnerable student population.’

The District will get $227 million, according to National Education Association estimates. D.C. Council members hope stimulus funds can replace at least some of the $100 million in sales tax revenue set aside annually to rehabilitate schools.

School systems have been hesitant to say how they will spend the money, because the timing of its release and other details were unknown until yesterday.

The 139,300-student Montgomery County school system, Maryland’s largest, acted more swiftly than most. Its school board amended its budget request for fiscal 2010 last month to put the new money to work. The system will use stimulus dollars to increase the number of schools receiving Title I aid from 27 to 30, to increase the number of full-day Head Start classes from 13 to 21, and to restore teaching positions in reading, math and special education that had been cut from the budget, among other things.

Guidelines posted by Duncan yesterday authorize the release of $5 billion in Title I funds and $6 billion for special education, about half of the total stimulus funding in those areas and a huge increase from typical annual spending levels. School systems may receive the money without filing new paperwork.

By the end of March, governors will be able to apply for $32.5 billion in stabilization funds. Those dollars will be released within two weeks.

Duncan framed the stimulus package as an opportunity to push academic reform and accountability. To receive the funds, states must commit to raising academic standards; testing students of all demographic groups; tracking progress over time and sharing those results; improving teacher effectiveness and distributing qualified teachers equitably; and intervening in poorly performing schools. The language comes from recent reform movements in many school systems, including Chicago’s, which Duncan ran for seven years.

‘I want to be really clear,’ he said. ‘Simply trying to keep the status quo is not good enough. We have to push to get dramatically better.’

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