Thursday, September 16th, 2010 - 6:15
Saturday, September 11, 2010 - 08:26
When it comes to Recovery Act education spending, the stimulus money devoted to Race to the Top is the tip of the iceberg. Why hasn't the rest of the money received more attention?
We find ourselves feeling just a bit queasy about the press coverage of the education portion of the stimulus over the last six months. We know you've heard a lot about the $4.3 billion Race to the Top competitive grant program. But the persistent attention to that contest has often obscured the other $90 billion plus that the Recovery Act bestowed on other aspects of education. We are as guilty as the next journalists for, perhaps, over-emphasizing the aspect of the education stimulus that was the easiest to write about and explain. Everyone loves a horse race. The competition had winners and losers, plenty of drama, and specific news events that invited coverage.
But what about the rest of the education spending? The storyline there simply isn’t as clear, as the bulk went to the relatively thankless federal task of protecting state and school district budgets that would have been clobbered otherwise. In other words, it’s tricky to focus on problems that were prevented. This is the kind of dilemma that confronts fire departments; they deserve credit for fires prevented, but only get headlines for the flames they actually douse.
For more detail about the non-Race dollars, we turned to The Congressional Research Service, which provided a nice overview of education stimulus funding in its April, 2009 publication, "Funding for Education in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act." Looking at the big areas of spending, about $53 billion was geared to state stabilization funding (with a small hunk of that available to transfer to non education purposes); $11 billion was set aside for children with disabilities and special education needs; $3 billion was targeted for low-performing schools; $10 billion to help disadvantaged students and about $17 billion went to the Pell grant program
Look behind the surface, and there's quite a lot going on -- the Obama administration emphasis on reform, on building data systems, bolstering technology, and improving poorly functioning schools has been a consistent theme. This seems like pretty important stuff, so why haven’t we heard more about it?
One reason: According to a recent GAO report, despite the big emphasis on transparency, states are doing a pretty dismal job of describing the way education funds are used in their required stimulus reporting. Looking at $70 billion in spending for education, the GAO found that 9 percent of the narrative descriptions that states offered about their education spending were fully transparent, containing "sufficiently clear and understandable information on the award's purpose, scope, location, award amount, nature of activities, outcomes and status of work"; 13 percent had some, but not all of the information. For 78 percent, the information was limited.
The theme of the GAO report is similar to another more general GAO foray into the weakness of project descriptions that was published back in May. We covered that report a few months ago, in a blog post that featured Toy Story creator John Lasseter talking about the importance of telling a story.
The narrative shortcomings are even worse for education programs because the Education Department encouraged states to use lifeless boiler plate descriptions. So, for example, a look at special education funding for many states will reveal the same language under quarterly activities/program description: "Assist States in providing special education and related services to children with disabilities in accordance with Part B of the IDEA."
The Education Department offered the states boiler plate wording to help reduce the burden of reporting requirements. We understand the reasoning, especially when states need to sum up how money will be spent by hundreds of local education agencies. But in retrospect, we think it was a mistake. Transparency is more than publishing data and as far as we're concerned, boiler plate descriptions should be eschewed. The press may have gravitated to the easiest story to tell, but they're not entirely to blame.