For now, stimulus funds stabilizing Colorado schools

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan may be talking big about promoting innovation with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) education dollars, but Colorado schools won’t see any sweeping developments this fall.

Rebuilding Casey Middle School in Boulder while retaining the brick facade (nekosoft, Flickr)
Rebuilding Casey Middle School in Boulder while retaining the brick facade (nekosoft, Flickr)

That doesn’t mean, however, that the stimulus program won’t be making an impact. Federal Recovery funds are being used to prop up current programs and to lay the groundwork for more ambitious future change.

“In many cases, what you will see is continuation of programs that would have been cut,” said Nina Lopez, director of the ARRA for the Colorado Department of Education.

Colorado isn’t alone. A July 8 report from the Government Accountability Office found school districts throughout the nation are using their federal dollars to keep teachers and offset state cuts.

The 2008-2009 school year will be the first time in history that federal dollars will be part of the school finance formula in Colorado, said Vody Herrmann, director of public school finance at the Colorado Department of Education. But she quickly noted that the federal contribution is only about 2.7 percent of total program dollars.

“It’s a small amount of money,” she said. “So I don’t see any significant changes coming from those dollars — other than more reporting.”

Unlike state reporting requirements, which are annual, the Obama administration is requiring schools to report quarterly — and not just on their use of federal funds.

Lopez explained that Washington has been saying: “We’re giving you this money, and as a result, we want you to report more.”

The few programs most likely to expand with stimulus dollars, she said, are those impacting particular demographics, such as low-income students or students with special needs.

That’s because the early stimulus dollars were primarily designed to help states backfill state budget cuts or, in what Lopez noted came as “a surprise for districts and for us,” the funds were earmarked for certain high-risk student populations.

Federal dollars intended to inspire innovation have yet to be released, Lopez said.

But they will be: Roughly $10 billion is scheduled to be dispersed in the next two years through competitive grant processes. The Obama administration is just beginning to release details about those contests.

“The source of funds matter,” said Lopez. “There’s a pretty strong correlation between source of funds and the amount of innovation.”

Using stimulus funds creatively

While Cindy Stevenson, superintendent of the Jefferson County School District, Colorado’s largest school district, agreed that stimulus dollars have not inspired sweeping change in the 2009-10 school year, she argued that they have helped her district work on ongoing plans for improvement.

“Our stimulus dollars didn’t come in and we could say now we will do this innovation,” she said. “They came in and we said now we can continue.”

“I think [the stimulus funds] allowed us to intensify, possibly accelerate, some of our efforts — full-day kindergarten, teacher training, and intervention for children not meeting standards, particularly in reading,” she added.

In some cases, accomplishing the district’s goals with the stimulus money was straightforward. For example, the district used stimulus funds earmarked for district-wide improvement to accomplish an ongoing goal of employing a full-time instructional coach at each school.

In other cases, the district had to be creative. Early on, it hoped to fund a previous plan for 19 additional full-day kindergartens with money earmarked for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

When it realized the rules didn’t allow that use of the IDEA funds, the district funded its IDEA programs with federal money, then used the leftover district money to expand full-day kindergartens in the district.

The Denver Public School District also used stimulus money to fund already-established goals. This summer, for example, it was able to expand a summer program that helped prepare students for high school, offering it to those going into middle school.

“It was more that the stimulus money allowed us to launch programs that had previously lacked funding, like expanding the 9th grade academy concept to 6th grade,” said spokesman Michael Vaughn.

What’s the plan?

But while decisions about how to spend the first several rounds of stimulus funds are largely being made at the district level, decisions about how to compete for the next round of funds — the $4.3 billion “Race to the Top” competition — are in the hands of the state.

The draft guidelines (pdf) for the competition were released on July 24, and Colorado’s four volunteer work groups — each of whom is addressing one of the key areas — met for the first time last week.

Applications for the first round of funds are due in December, so Colorado has roughly four months to develop a strategy. State officials have claimed that Colorado is well-poised to receive the funds, citing recent statewide educational reform in three of the key “Race to the Top” areas:

» Data systems: This year, as part of the requirements in SB-163, Colorado released a new data system that can track individual student progress. It also passed HB 1065, which creates a pilot program to link teachers to their students’ progress.

» Low-performing schools: SB-163 also gives the state new tools to help it turn around struggling schools.

» Standards and assessments: Per SB 08-212, the state is currently rewriting its standards and assessments, in order to improve postsecondary and workforce readiness. The new standards will be adopted this December.

But a report released last Wednesday by the New Teacher Project suggested the state needs to work much harder and faster: it ranked Colorado as only “somewhat competitive” for the funds.

Another report, released Tuesday by the Piton Foundation and the National Council on Teacher Quality, provided Race to the Top recommendations to Colorado. Here was its number one recommendation: Colorado needs to reform the way it evaluates and gives tenure to, or dismisses, teachers.

“Given the tremendous impact teachers have on learning, no strategy a state will take on is likely to have a greater impact on student achievement than one which seeks to maximize teacher and principal performance,” the report stated.

Tuesday’s report also suggested the state focus on the following six reforms:

(1) figure out how to place its strongest teachers in low-income schools, (2) provide better support to new teachers, (3) develop a salary scales based on factors such as teacher effectiveness, the relative difficulty of a school setting and the demand for teachers with particular skills or knowledge — not length of tenure, (4) develop a strategy to attract and maintain qualified STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers, (5) adopt an effective curriculum statewide, and (6) connect student performance data to teacher preparation programs in order to distinguish useful preparation programs from ones that should be shuttered.

So what will the state’s strategy be?

“I don’t think any of us really know,” Stevenson said.

For now, lacking firm details, the state is talking big.

“It’s not business as usual and it’s not tweaking around the edges,” said O’Brien in a Race to the Top press release. “This is potentially a transformative moment and could change the way we look at schools, students, teaching, and how we evaluate education.”

“If you are not uncomfortable with where you are taking your proposal,” O’Brien said, quoting Duncan, “then you’re probably not pushing yourselves hard enough.”

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