Federal Dollars Aimed at Education Reform Run Into Local and State Budget Woes

By Maria Glod and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 13, 2009

Educators across the country are counting on a federal stimulus windfall to prevent teacher layoffs and improve schools. But while Washington is giving, some state and local governments are taking away.

After hearing that an initial batch of $11.8 million in federal funds would soon arrive in Loudoun County, supervisors slashed $7.3 million from the schools budget. They also made clear that if more federal recovery money flows to schools, schools might be asked to give back an equal amount of county dollars.

The Obama administration has heralded the stimulus -- which funnels an unprecedented $100 billion into public schools, universities and early childhood programs -- as a historic opportunity to reform education. But the budget shifts in Loudoun offer a case study of a phenomenon that worries educators nationwide. When the math is done, will the fiscal jolt from Washington be enough to transform classrooms?

"The money is falling off the truck between Washington and the local schoolhouse," said Robley S. Jones, director of government affairs for the Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers.

In the grim economy, state and local officials face tightening budgets and tough decisions. Some who had championed education while cutting other services now see no choice but to spread the pain.

Loudoun Supervisor Sally Kurtz (D-Catoctin) noted that the county has cut almost 100 positions, including building inspectors and fire and rescue workers. Without federal stimulus money, teachers might have lost jobs, too. So the county decided to take back dollars to limit a tax rate increase for residents.

"If it was meant to save the local economy, well . . . we saved jobs," Kurtz said.

A key goal of the stimulus law is to patch holes in state budgets and save and create jobs. Educators agree that $54 billion to be funneled to states will prevent thousands of teacher layoffs and drastic program cuts and that schools would be in dire straits without that bailout. An additional $25 billion will target aid to students who are disabled or in poverty, groups the federal government has long helped educate.

But President Obama has linked the funding to high expectations for schools. The administration wants school systems to consider lengthening the school day, expanding charter schools and experimenting with merit pay plans. Obama challenged the country to have the highest rate of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Education advocates say that they're sympathetic to local and state budget woes but that they have a mandate to make changes to raise achievement. And to make them fast.

The worst thing that could happen is "the federal government does its biggest investment into education ever and it does nothing for schools," said Amy Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust in the District, which advocates better schools for the disadvantaged. "Education people are going to have to use sharp elbows and tight fists to hold on to their money."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has warned states against playing "shell games" with money aimed at schools. The stimulus law and regulations have strings to protect against big drops in education funding but allow the most cash-strapped states to seek some flexibility.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company