The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided an unprecedented $100 billion in additional funding for education over fiscal years 2009, 2010, and 2011. It has been notoriously difficult to interpret how states used those funds, despite promises of “transparency” from the Obama Administration. Did the money go to support the states that needed the most help? According to a recent U.S. Department of Education report, no—on average states with high per pupil spending and high student achievement received the most.
The report examines distributions of ARRA funds per pupil at the state level, grouping them by various indicators of need such as student poverty, budget gaps, and percentages of students attending persistently low-achieving schools. The authors find that 25 percent of states that had the highest per pupil spending received an average of $435 more per pupil than the 25 percent with the lowest spending. The trend is mostly explained by $4.4 billion in Race to the Top (RttT) grants which were awarded primarily to higher-spending states.
The 25 percent of states with the highest student poverty rates received the least ARRA funding per pupil, $1,358 compared to $1,372 on average. The states that received the most per pupil were actually the states with average poverty rates (between 12.9 and 20.4 percent). Those states received $1,419 per pupil on average. Similarly, states with the highest performing students (based on the percentage scoring proficient on National Assessment of Education Progress tests) also received more per pupil than states with lower-performing students. The high-performing states received $1,463 per pupil, while the low-performing states received $1,304.
However, the report’s findings suggest more ARRA funds found their way to states with big budget gaps. States with the largest budget shortfalls did receive more funding per pupil than those with smaller shortfalls – a surprising conclusion given that Congress did not target the funds to states with large funding gaps. The 25 percent of states with the highest funding gap received $1,431 per pupil, while those states with the smallest gaps received $1,288. Again, this difference is primarily attributable to Race to the Top funding – the states with the largest gaps received $109 per pupil in RttT, while the states with the smallest gaps received only $7 per pupil.
Overall, it is not be completely surprising that the ARRA funds did not target states with the highest need as measured by student achievement and spending. Much of the ARRA funds were distributed through existing federal funding formulas like Title I or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which take into account many other factors besides need like state size. The State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, the largest program in the ARRA, distributed funds according to population size. Instead, Race to the Top, a $4.4 billion competitive grant program, seems to drive most of the funding differences across states. This is likely because it was intended to benefit states that were willing to or already investing in their education systems and demonstrating positive results.
Still, interpret the Department’s conclusions with caution. In calculating per pupil expenditures, the authors had to exclude some ARRA funding that technically went to education programs. But more importantly, the figures include all State Fiscal Stabilization Funds allocated to each state, not only those spent on K-12 education. States were allowed to spend the funds on both K-12 and higher education, and on average 20 percent of the funds went to higher education. As a result, the numbers cited above and in the report actually overstate per pupil spending from ARRA, particularly in states that spent most of those funds on higher education, like Wyoming and Colorado.
In all, the report sheds some much-needed light on the distribution of ARRA funds to states (as well as school districts, though that is a whole other discussion). And it suggests that the various ARRA programs mostly did what they were intended to do – push out money to states as quickly as possible based on existing funding formulas and population. While the Department attempted to encourage states and districts to use these formula funds to support reform efforts, few did. Instead the overwhelming goal of keeping teachers in classrooms and students in seats dominated. Any hope of reform now rides completely on the backs of the competitive grant programs.