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Schools to begin receiving stimulus money

The Obama administration has released $44 billion to states in the first round of school dollars from the economic stimulus package, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Duncan made the announcement April 1 at Doswell Brooks Elementary School in the Maryland suburbs, just outside of Washington, D.C. He also warned that states that don’t spend the money wisely to improve teaching and learning risk forfeiting future stimulus dollars.

"It’s critical the money go out quickly, but it’s even more important this money be spent wisely," Duncan told a group of kids, teachers, and state and local leaders in the school library.

The school has a big share of poor and special-education students but has boosted achievement significantly over the past five years.

President Barack Obama says the stimulus law will save teachers’ jobs, although there is no estimate of how many jobs will be rescued. Nationwide, about 294,000 teachers–9 percent–face possible layoffs because of state budget cuts.

At the same time, the administration wants to do more than preserve jobs. Obama wants to transform the federal government’s role in education. His administration views the stimulus bill as a rare chance to put lasting reforms in place.

"This is a historic opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to lay the groundwork for a generation of education reforms," Duncan said.

The administration made available half of the dollars for federal programs that pay for kindergarten through 12th grade and special education. States must distribute these dollars to local school systems through existing Title I and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) formulas.

In addition, Duncan will provide applications for states to get money from a special fund to stabilize state and local budgets.

However, loopholes created by Congress could let states and school districts spend the money on other things, such as playground equipment or new construction.

Duncan has said he would "come down like a ton of bricks" and withhold the second round of funds from anyone who defies Obama’s wishes.

Meanwhile, the White House acknowledged it can’t circumvent South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who is refusing stimulus money because the Obama administration won’t let him use it to pay down school construction debt.

The White House said there is no provision in the stimulus law to help state lawmakers accept the money without the governor’s approval.

"It would be an unfortunate (and we believe an unintended) policy outcome if the children of South Carolina were to be deprived of their share of federal stimulus dollars … because the governor chooses not to apply for stimulus funds," White House budget director Peter Orszag wrote March 31 in a letter to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

The letter was obtained by the Associated Press.

Defending his decision in a March 31 interview on Fox News, Sanford said it would be "fiscal child abuse" to accept millions of dollars in federal aid for education.

"Since we don’t have any of this money that’s now being dispensed from Washington, D.C.; since we’re going out and printing money and we’re issuing debt to solve a problem that was created by too much debt; since that’s taking place, and since those costs will be borne by the next generation, in fact it is sort of fiscal child abuse" to accept the money, Sanford said.

In their applications for the state stabilization funds, states must show improvement in teacher quality, data systems, academic standards, and supporting struggling schools.

States and districts also will have a chance to compete for money from a $5 billion fund solely for these kinds of innovations.

Previous education secretaries had a fraction of that, about $16 million a year, to distribute for their own priorities.

(Editor’s note: For continuing coverage of the economic stimulus and its affect on schools, see our Educator Resource Center on the topic:

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