Stimulus Includes $5 Billion Flexible Fund for Education Innovation
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009; Page A10
Education Secretary Arne Duncan would have $5 billion under the stimulus bill to back new approaches to improve schools, a fund that could prod states to raise standards and reward top teachers as the Obama administration presides over a massive infusion of federal education aid.
The Race to the Top Fund, as Duncan calls it, is part of about $100 billion the bill would channel to public schools, universities and early childhood education programs nationwide, helping stave off teacher layoffs, keep class sizes in check and jump-start efforts to revamp aging schools.
But the windfall also could mark the beginning of a deeper transformation of schools seven years after the No Child Left Behind law mandated an expansion of testing and new systems for school accountability.
"This is what I see as just an absolute historic opportunity," Duncan told reporters yesterday. He said the stimulus bill would help the Obama administration hammer three themes: "First and foremost, protecting children. Secondly, saving and creating jobs. And third, pushing a significant reform agenda."
President Obama in recent days has repeatedly stressed a bold approach to improve public education. In a surprise foray out of the White House last week to read to schoolchildren, he chose a D.C. public charter school as a backdrop.
"What I've asked Arne Duncan to do is to make sure that he works as hard as he can over the next several years to make sure that we're reforming our schools, that we're rewarding innovation the way that it's taking place here," Obama said at Capital City Public Charter School.
Obama campaigned on promises to increase federal funding for schools, responding to complaints from teachers unions and many educators who have long argued that Washington has made demands on schools without paying its fair share. But he also said he would shake up the status quo, drawing on a host of methods, including performance-pay plans with teachers' blessing, alternative teacher training programs and charter schools, which are publicly financed but independently run.
The stimulus presents an unheard-of opportunity to push both agendas -- at least in the short term.
"You're not creating winners or losers," said Brown University education professor Martin West. "It's a lot easier to innovate when you can do it with new money."
Even as school leaders line up projects to overhaul old schools and seek ways to soften budget cuts, they also are on the lookout for innovative programs worthy of federal dollars and the national spotlight.
Arlington County Superintendent Robert G. Smith said he might seek a grant from Duncan to expand a program that provides extra support for Latino and African American students in Advanced Placement classes.
Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said federal backing for innovation is "a smart move" because some of the best school reform strategies percolate from the ground up. "The reason why Montgomery County does so well . . . is innovative teaching and learning, so there's no doubt our people have great ideas."
Over two years, the stimulus bill would funnel $53.6 billion to states to prevent layoffs and create jobs, and the bulk of that would go to schools and universities, including funds to modernize aging buildings. Another $25 billion would help students who are disabled or in poverty, groups the federal government has long pitched in to educate.
The package includes $17 billion to increase the maximum Pell Grant for needy college students by $500, to $5,350, and about $4 billion to expand federal preschool classes and child-care programs.
Duncan's $5 billion fund would be a pot of discretionary money much larger than any of his predecessors had, former education secretary Margaret Spellings said. It would allow Duncan to award grants to states that show progress in boosting student achievement, and he said it would support efforts to create better tests and shore up data systems to track student achievement.
He said he also would seek to use the fund "to really challenge states and partner with them to dramatically raise standards . . . and think very differently about how we recruit great teachers, reward them, recognize and incent them."
The fund would include $650 million to support partnerships between schools, or schools and nonprofit groups, to "scale up what works," Duncan said. Separately, the stimulus bill would include $200 million for teacher performance-pay programs.
Alexa Marrero, spokeswoman for Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said there is broad support for many of the initiatives Duncan is likely to push. But she said education policy should be crafted through debate over reauthorization of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, not as part of the stimulus package.
"Congress has really worked hard to set out a path for reforming No Child Left Behind and for education reform more broadly," Marrero said. "The fact that legislation that is supposed to be about economic stimulus is being used to enact substantive education reform without the benefit of open debate and the inclusion of the American people, that's where the concern lies."
Education committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said the fund will be critical to improving professional development for teachers and creating career incentives for those who take on additional responsibilities.
"This is a very serious amount of money in its total amount for education," Miller said. "Both the president and the secretary do not want to lose a year or two in the efforts to achieve reform that are necessary to create a modern, effective school system throughout this country."