Have stimulus funds helped spur educational technology gains?

North Carolina public school leaders worry that growing enrollment and a cessation of stimulus funds could make potential budget cuts even harder to absorb.

The state’s public education budget has been reduced for the last two years, and in the coming year, federal stimulus funds that helped in the past will be gone. At the same time, student enrollment in the state has increased by more than 40,000 since 2006.

The Office of State Budget and Management has asked the Department of Public Instruction to show how it would handle cuts of 5 percent or 10 percent.

State Superintendent June Atkinson says both would mean teacher layoffs and larger classroom sizes. But with North Carolina facing a potential $3 billion budget gap, lawmakers say some cuts are unavoidable.

Conflicting Missions and Unclear Results: Lessons from the Education Stimulus Funds,” a December 2010 report from Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit school reform group, indicates that the to-date results of stimulus funds significantly lag behind the ambitious education intentions of the law.

“The ARRA has played an important role in closing district budget gaps created by state and local revenue losses, sustaining education spending, and saving jobs,” notes the report, which did not focus on educational technology in particular. “But that success in closing state and local budget gaps is only temporary; districts will face even greater pain once funds go away. And ARRA’s largest funding streams—the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, Title I, and IDEA—have had only limited reform impact.”

Bellwether researchers, along with consultants from Education First Consulting, a national education policy and strategic consulting firm, identified emerging themes among states as a result of ARRA funding and its larger implications for school reform.

“ARRA funds were intended to counter the reactionary economic impact of state and local budget cuts while accelerating state and local education reform efforts,” the report says. “Indeed, these funds were sufficient to make up for K-12 funding shortfalls in the majority of states. But in many cases, the funds simply helped districts tread water, as several states reduced education budgets by roughly the same amounts they received in ARRA allocations.”

Bellwether’s researchers found several key themes emerging from states’ and districts’ experiences in spending stimulus funds, including:

  • Districts used stimulus funds primarily to maintain spending levels in the face of state and local budget cuts. But some districts also used the funds to move forward with reforms at the same time, particularly in the area of human resources.
  • Mixed messages from senior Education Department (ED) officials, multiple competing priorities, and delays in receiving official guidance from ED and states created confusion at the district level about the purpose of stimulus funds and how they should be used to preserve jobs and advance school reform.
  • In many districts, inertia and existing processes, rather than reform priorities, drove allocation and distribution of stimulus funds.
  • In districts that did use stimulus funds for a more strategic end, local leadership, greater capacity, and idiosyncratic local factors, rather than federal policy decisions, were the causes.
  • Budget pressures on states and districts are proving to be even greater and longer-lasting than initially expected and are a long-term and systemic problem rather than a temporary one.

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