School Beat: What the Stimulus Package Could Mean for Education

by Lisa Schiff on February 5, 2009

Just last week the, House of Representatives approved a stimulus package. Auspiciously numbered HR 1, the entire country is now anxiously waiting as the U.S. Senate works out its own approach and negotiates with President Obama. Public education is just one of the many areas in which these financial resources are sorely needed, as those of us in San Francisco and around the state continue to attest to in our never-ending series of letters and phone calls to Governor Schwarzenegger and other elected officials.

Our almost incomprehensible and ever growing state budget is nightmarishly paired with the most frustrating of gridlocks in Sacramento. Delusional Republicans who either don’t understand how to add up the basic costs of essential services or at their most honest, don’t particularly care to see those services provided are refusing to re-evaluate our tax structure, even taxes on those who are skating through gaping wide loopholes.

Obama’s stimulus plan, as many have pointed out, is not the answer to our schools’ funding problems, but it’s a welcome change on so many levels. First, there is no denying that schools need cash now. True, there is a danger that one-time infusions of money set up shortfalls for the following years, but in reality, this money should be seen as a bridge while we collectively determine how to increase funds going to school sites—through increased funding, careful reduction and restructuring of categorical funding (that’s funding that can only go towards specific efforts, limiting the ability of school sites to prioritize resource allocation based on local needs and that also comes with high reporting costs in the form of even more paper work).

Second, it’s an early marker of a new federal outlook on education, one that understands the need to provide dollars to adequately carry out plans and that (cross your fingers) hopefully acknowledges that standardized anything –curricula/testing/teaching methods/–just aren’t going to cut it on their own.

Some highlights of the House of Representatives package as it relates to K-12:

$13 billion for programs directly benefitting educationally disadvantaged students (Title I programs). These are important funds for San Francisco and all urban districts, as many of our students qualify and are evaluated under this Title. Title I is the area that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) really targets (someday will be able to say that in the past tense…), as its supposed aim is to increase achievement for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. $5.5 billion of this is supposed to go directly to local school districts. Again, this is not the answer to all of our problems, especially here in bankrupt California, but it’s not anything we would say “No” to.

$100 million for facility modernization.

$66 million for efforts ensuring that children who are homeless have equal access to education, per the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act.

Just over $1 billion for state and local technology grants.

$200 million for the implementation and evaluation of “innovative programs” to increase academic achievement.

$25 million to help charter schools with facilities needs.

Almost $14 billion for funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education ACT (IDEA), almost, but not quite reaching the full-funding level Congress established upon the creation of IDEA in 1975.

$700 million to fund existing vocational rehabilitation programs.

All of this money is being targeted towards pre-existing legislation, in other words we’re seeing significant movement towards fully funding NCLB, since almost all of the monies mentioned above are tied to specific sections of that legislation. It’s not clear what the implications of all of this might be, given that the Obama administration’s strategy towards reauthorizing, revamping or radically overhauling NCLB is still uncertain. We don’t yet know what kinds of reporting and performance strings may be attached to this funding at the end of the day, but it seems reasonable to assume that we have an administration that will work with states, as opposed to attacking them.

One of the most important aspects of this package is the amount being targeted towards IDEA, which if fully funded would not only result in better services for the students who are supposed to receive them, but would greatly ease financial strains on districts who must provide such services even without adequate funding.

Still, despite the large numbers sketched out above, this stimulus package will do nothing to solve the structural financial problems that California faces and that are felt so keenly by the public school community. Strategies for addressing the low-levels in the public coffers have been discussed in this column many times, and of course the ultimate solution, reforming Proposition 13, is the elephant on the table. We have to continue to bring out these alternatives as a shield each and every time the Governor and lawmakers go after school funding; there’s just no other way to do it.

As a step in that effort, the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), our teachers’ union, has created a petition opposing the education cuts currently on the table that people can fill out, return to UESF, who will then deliver the petitions to Governor Schwarzenegger, Assembly Speaker Bass, Senate President Pro Tem Steinberg, Senator Cogdill, and Assemblyman Villines. This is something we can bring to our school events, parent meetings, or anywhere we might encounter people willing to wield a pen.

Someone posted recently that we really need a revolution in California, where parents, guardian, teachers, kids go to Sacramento and refuse further cuts. We’ve had a couple of such efforts in the past, along with large demonstrations scattered throughout the state, but nothing on the massive scale this person and others of us have envisioned. For some reason we’ve not yet pulled together in any cohesive way, but if the grim forecast from the state’s capital comes to pass, we may find ourselves with no choice but to break through all of the invisible barriers that seem to be keeping us from demanding, with one voice, what all of our children need.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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