( – promoted by Clark)

In a press conference call yesterday, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan emphasized the points he made in his earlier announcement that $44 billion dollars is now available to the states for school related projects.   In Duncan’s introductory remarks, his responses to questions, and in this related press release, he struck the following themes again and again:

1. While spending is meant to create jobs thorough one-time projects and to preserve jobs that might be lost because of the budget cut-backs that many states are facing, a second and equally important goal of the education stimulus is to further reform  initiatives intended to improve the educational system, especially in those schools that are significantly underperforming.

2. Transparency in spending these funds is essential;  states will be expected to account for their use of the funds and commit to collecting data that will permit their progress to be assessed, and which will contribute to codifying national educational standards.

3. The funds will be parceled out in three stages; failure to spend the money as specified in the guidelines could result in the state’s failing to secure second or third stage funds.  In fact, the third stage consists explicitly of two competitive grant programs that will make awards to states that have made the most progress in improving public education.  To secure grants from these programs, data collected and submitted by the state must demonstrate:

• Improvements in teacher effectiveness and commitments that all schools have highly qualified teachers.

• Progress toward college and career-ready standards and rigorous assessments that will improve both teaching and learning.

• Improvements in achievement in low-performing schools, by providing intensive support and effective interventions in those schools.

• That they can gather information to improve student learning, teacher performance, and college and career-readiness through enhanced data systems that track progress.

So how does Missouri’s plans to use the stimulus funds fit into this picture?  Follow me over the fold and find out.

During the Q&A with Secretary Duncan, he was asked about states that were trying to play a “shell-game” with education stimulus funds. Immediately, my ears went up, since House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet (R-Wildwood) has been open about his intention to circumvent the goals of the stimulus education spending; he has

… acknowledged that he is using $625 million in federal stimulus money that must be spent on education to replace state general-revenue money that had been designated for the education budget. The general-revenue money can now be spent somewhere else.

In the words of Rep. Chris Kelly (D-Columbia), Icet is “essentially laundering federal money.” Viewed from another perspective, this maneuver not only scams the federal government, but frees up a big pile of money for discretionary use by, guess who, Allen Icet and his pals in the Republican-dominated legislature.

Secretary Duncan, however, was unequivocal that states would have to account for their use of education stimulus  funds, and that states that had used the first round of funds in a way that is incompatible with federal guidelines would find their share of subsequent monies seriously diminished. This was spelled out in his press release:

Under the law passed by Congress, the top priority for these dollars is to do right by our schools and our kids. If states play games with these funds, the second round of stabilization funds could be in jeopardy and they could eliminate their state from competitive grant money. This money must be spent in the best interests of children,” …

Of course, Icet et al. all claim that they must resort to this gimmickry because they don’t want to fund programs that can’t be sustained by state revenues after the stimulus program has been exhausted. They don’t seem to be able to identify many one-time eduction-related projects.

But what about school building and infrastructure projects?  Surely they fit the definition of one-time projects?  According to the U.S. Department of Education, stimulus funds can be used for such projects.   This Educattion Department FAQ explicitly states:

The economic stimulus does not include a dedicated source of grant funding for

school infrastructure repairs and modernization. However, the law allows districts to use funding received from their states through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) for school modernization and repairs.

And school districts in Missouri really would like to pay for such projects from the stimulus funds.  According to the Missourian, the Independence School district alone

… has identified more than $40 million of potential renovations to six school buildings it recently obtained from the neighboring Kansas City School District. The list includes roof repairs, new heating and air conditioning systems, improved parking lots and motion detectors for lights.

Then there are one-time teacher training needs; potential projects to develop teacher evaluation tools, data collection pilot programs in the service of ongoing reform efforts, development of best practices, and on and on and on.  I imagine that officials from Missouri’s school districts could come up with a long, long list of potential one-time uses that would help to make Missouri’s schools better.  

Of well … This won’t be the first stimulus related opportunity that Missouri Republicans have squandered.  I guess they don’t think that our schools need to be improved (although they do seem to like to tsk tsk about the state of St. Louis public schools).