News reports suggest that some schools and school districts have started receiving at least the beginning of the $44 billion in stimulus funding made available on April 1st. This money flows through three programs in particular - No Child Left Behind Title I Part A, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B, and the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF). While all 50 states and the District of Columbia have received at least 50 percent of their Title I and IDEA allocations, only the 13 states whose SFSF applications have been approved have received any of that available money. Below we discuss how some school districts have decided to use the funds.
As we've discussed previously, guidance states that the stimulus funds are to be used for two primary, and potentially conflicting, purposes. The first, saving and creating jobs, is an inherent goal of the stimulus bill particularly for states experiencing severe budget deficits. The second, supporting reforms to improve student academic achievement, will likely be sidelined in many districts as they work to keep their schools open and teachers in their classrooms. However, some districts have attempted to do both.
Cleveland Metropolitan School District, for example, has devised a plan that would use stimulus funds to support more than 200 teachers' salaries for two years. Essentially, 200 experienced teachers already working in the system would volunteer to become math and reading substitute teachers and tutors providing support to the less experienced, and therefore less expensive, teachers hired to replace them. The readily available substitute teachers would enable the newly hired, less experienced teachers to participate in extended professional development and training. After the two year program ends, the 200 substitute teachers and tutors would be required to retire or resign. The district estimates that the program would save approximately $40,000 per teacher in salary and benefits, or two-thirds of the budget deficit.
While this plan seems questionable in that it removes 200 experienced teachers from classrooms and replaces them with less experienced ones, it does leverage the experience of those 200 teachers to both assist newer teachers and struggling students. It also lowers the district's teacher salary expenses significantly after 2010. This is particularly important because Cleveland will theoretically avoid the "fund cliffs" - in which districts are no longer able to support new programs once the stimulus funds are gone - the stimulus guidance warns districts to avoid.
Indianapolis Public Schools has also proposed a similar program, hiring back nearly 200 recently fired teachers as substitute teachers. But rather than using experienced, more expensive teachers as substitute teachers like the Cleveland plan, Indianapolis is bringing back younger teachers as substitute teachers to prevent them from losing their jobs immediately. As a result, the more experienced teachers will remain in classrooms. This plan also does not require the substitute teachers to resign after the stimulus money runs out, creating a potential funding cliff after 2010.
Houston Independent School District has also outlined plans to use stimulus funds that focus on literacy and numeracy education. Specifically, the district hopes to expand its existing Literacy Leads the Way initiative to put literacy specialists in elementary as well as high schools. While this plan does create new jobs in schools and aims to improve student reading achievement, it does not provide details on how the district will continue to pay the new specialists after the stimulus money runs out. However, the district does intend to provide existing teachers with three to four day math and literacy training sessions to help improve their instructional skills.
Other districts are opting for more piecemeal uses for their stimulus funds. In some cases, these uses could provide valuable extra services for students. But in others, they maintain business as usual. For example, Moline-Coal Valley School District in Illinois plans to use its IDEA stimulus dollars to provide special education students with a computer program called Compass. Compass tailors instruction to each student's ability and increases in difficulty as each student progresses. Programs like Compass can be important instructional tools for special education teachers.
St. Joseph School District in Missouri has also fleshed out its plans for its IDEA funds. They include building a sensory room for autistic students, installing a new playground for special-needs students, and purchasing new wheelchair buses. While these efforts do address the needs of special education students, they don't immediately appear to affect how the students learn. In the same vein, the majority of St. Joe's stimulus funds will be used to save several teaching jobs rather than institute new programs or resources.
It is clear that many districts are struggling to both save jobs and undergo efforts to improve student achievement. Some, like Cleveland, are constructing out-of-the-box plans that could significantly change instruction while staying true to the stimulus guidance. But others seem to be using the funds to maintain the status quo in the name of saving jobs. We will continue to follow these trends as more districts release their plans for the stimulus funds.