In the weeks ahead, municipal leaders in Connecticut will face a dilemma. More than $775 million in new supplemental funding is coming from Washington under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to augment spending for disadvantaged and special needs students. Little of it, however, can be used to plug the holes in most school budgets.
This welcome infusion of wealth comes with many prohibitions and drawbacks. Unfortunately, the belief that that public schools are getting a windfall that will help municipalities cope with recent losses in local and state revenue is inaccurate.
This misunderstanding of the recovery act's purpose can be pernicious, particularly if people conclude that it will allow towns to reduce local spending on schools to fix other problems in local government — from repairing roads to avoiding layoffs.The recovery act's funds for public education break down into five major categories: Stabilization funds, Title I funds, Title II funds, IDEA funds and Title VII funds for homeless students. With the exception of Stabilization dollars, these various funds will be added on top of money already received from the federal Office of Education annually. The Office of Education chose these programs as a way of quickly moving money to the states through well-worn and well-regulated pathways.
Nearly all of these funds must be used to provide supplemental support for disadvantaged schools and disabled children. Federal law strictly prohibits the use of entitlement funds for local or state services normally provided by a municipality's budget. So, despite the economic crisis, municipalities and districts cannot fix their budget problems with the new dollars, as much as they may want to.
There are aspects of the Title I and IDEA funding that will permit some flexibility. Stabilization dollars are less fettered, and the Office of Education has loosened a few of the restrictions attached to Title I and IDEA funds. But the principle of "supplement, not supplant" and not using federal dollars to shore up gaps in local and state funding will not change.
Municipal leaders and taxpayers must not blame the schools for having more money, seemingly, than everyone else in this time of crisis (another myth). And they certainly must not — if only because they will violate the law — game the system to cut school budgets disproportionately to free up dollars for other expenditures. The accountability provisions of the recovery act are stringent and demanding and the federal government has begun visiting states to monitor spending.
Superintendents must take the lead in guiding their communities to a full understanding of what is and is not possible under the new law and why, in certain instances, spending money on something "soft" such as teacher training may be one of the smartest investments a municipality can make.
Mayors and first selectmen must work with school leaders to determine how best to spend the new money in the 18 months it will be available. It will require strategic planning, genuine conversation and an honest appraisal of what should be done for poor students, children stymied by second-language learning and children who struggle with disabilities.
Municipal leaders — school and town officials alike — need to see the recovery act money as a historic opportunity to confront the extraordinary problems that have beset our poorest schools for decades. The opportunity, for example, to provide needy students with more hours of instruction through summer programs, after-school and Saturday classes; to expand preschools; or to train teachers to instruct bilingual students or students or whose disabilities limit their reading skills. There are many appropriate and vital services that, until now, have never been quite so available for our public schools.
In the end, as a state, as a community, we must seize this moment to close achievement gaps among whites, blacks, Hispanics and other students that have widened in the last decade. The recovery act is a chance to break new ground for thousands of students who can benefit from well-conceived programs and services, guided by skilled teachers and thoughtful leaders.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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