Stimulus: L.A. Edition

Friday, April 24, 2009
On Tuesday the Christian Science Monitor ran a good story ("Stimulus money puts teachers in layoff limbo") on the tension between using federal stimulus dollars to ward off layoffs versus using the funds to push reform.
A look at several states and school districts sheds light on the tension between multiple goals for the stimulus money – saving jobs, reforming education, and avoiding becoming too dependent on a funding stream due to dry up in two years.
Undoubtedly, districts will use much of the formula-based funding to save teachers jobs as well they should. Hopefully, some will also use it to build infrastructure and systems that support student learning, teacher development, and data collection. Of course, there also is the $5 billion of discretionary funding that the U.S. Department of Education will allow states and districts to compete for -- those that have a proven track record of reform and results who want to accomplish even more.

But it was curious to read in the Monitor story that the Los Angeles Unified School District was planning to submit an application for the $650 million What Works and Innovation Fund portion of the competitive stimulus funding.

With a projected shortfall of $1.4 billion over the next two years, largely because of state cuts, the L.A. schools cannot avoid increasing class sizes and cutting some teachers, district leaders say. Without the stimulus, "it would have been twice as bad," says school board president Mónica García. More than 1,000 jobs are being cut from the administrative side, she notes.

The board plans to seek additional stimulus dollars that the US Department of Education will be handing out on a competitive basis to districts that pursue key reforms. "We didn't want to just preserve the status quo ... and we heard Washington say loud and clear ... 'We're going to be holding you accountable for results,' " Ms. García says.

Much as I raised questions about Milwaukee's chances for such funding ("Stimulus: Milwaukee's Odds") in a recent post, I am raising a same question about LA Unified's. In the stimulus law -- the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act-- an explicit criterion for school districts to apply for such funding is having met adequate yearly progress objectives under No Child Left Behind for at least two years in a row. LA Unified has not. So the only way for it to win competitive stimulus funding would be in partnership with a nonprofit or through a California state application for Race To The Top funding.

Someone tell me if I'm wrong here, but based on very clear statutory language and from initial explanation provided by the U.S. Department of Education (further guidance is forthcoming), it seems that districts like Los Angeles and Milwaukee will be outside the tent with the vast majority of urban school districts ineligible to apply directly for competitive stimulus dollars. Those districts will however leverage historic federal funding increases through formula-based stimulus funding -- although that won't always be enough to offset state cuts as apparently is the case in L.A.