Our disadvantaged students are about to encounter the “perfect storm.”

Learning Leadership column for eSchool News, April 2011—Where are we going? What’s going to happen? Those are legitimate questions regarding the future of public education in America.

Back in the summer of 2008, when I first started work as executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, the future seemed bright. We were in the midst of a presidential election and, regardless of who won the election, changes were bound to happen. Both Democrats and Republicans seemed disenchanted with No Child Left Behind, and both candidates promised changes to some degree. Then the unthinkable happened: the bottom fell out of our economy and we entered the Great Recession. Mr. Obama won the election, and immediately economic recovery became the priority of the new administration.

Linda Darling Hammond had been Mr. Obama’s chief advisor on education issues, so it was no surprise when she was selected to head the education transition team. I have known Linda since our days in New York, and I was delighted when we were invited to meet with her and her team. The discussions were robust, and we were excited by the emphasis on areas like early childhood education, teacher professional development, and the assessment of English language learners and special-education students. Talk of a plan to rescue the economy shifted our attention to providing input on education spending that would help stimulate the economy.  School construction and maintenance, along with expenditures in technology infrastructure and hardware, seemed like appropriate suggestions. I recall seeing Anne Bryant, executive director for the National School Boards Association, leading a group of her members to meet with Congressional delegations while carrying little shovels that said “We have projects that are shovel ready.”

More from AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech:

School leaders need more help, and not red tape, to transform education

How we should improve on NCLB

Frankly, at that point we thought we were being bold by recommending an expenditure package that totaled $10 billion. That was almost as much as the prevailing education budget. Imagine our surprise when the stimulus package for education was approved at $100 billion! The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) did not include as much money for school construction and technology as we had first envisioned, but it did include substantial sums for Title I and IDEA funding. The states also were to receive state stabilization dollars that could be used to support education—a windfall for education the likes of which we had never seen.

The windfall never quite materialized. With increasing unemployment and real estate values plummeting, the primary sources of school districts’ revenue began to whither. At the state level, governors and legislators began to use the ARRA state stabilization dollars to supplant the allocations in their education budgets as they were faced with significant decreases in sales tax and income tax collections. Many districts saw no revenue increase as a result of the ARRA funds. At the local level, districts felt an even bigger impact as real estate values fell, bringing down assessed valuations and the school taxes they generate. On average, local taxes make up about 37 percent of a school district’s revenue, while the state contributes some 46 percent and the federal government’s contribution is just eight percent.