WHAT DOES THE STIMULUS MEAN FOR EDUCATION REFORM?

As I reported last week, the House version of the stimulus bill contained a total of $140 billion to support early childhood centers, school districts, colleges, and to expand the Pell grant program. The bill passed by the Senate yesterday decreased education funding to $80 billion, mostly by cutting direct education aid to states and funds for school construction. But as Education Week reports, the Senate's plan is still larger than the entire current discretionary budget of the Department of Education. In other words, this investment would be the federal government's biggest ever in local schools -- larger than the investment the Bush administration made in 2001 with the passage of No Child Left Behind, which was severely under-funded. But is this "education reform" money? Or simply a way to help schools maintain their services during the economic crisis?

The difference between NCLB and this cash infusion is that stimulus funds will allow school districts to plug ailing budgets or pursue "shovel ready" technology and staffing projects on the ground, largely without federal "accountability" strings attached. But the legislation does provide specific funds for attracting highly-qualified teachers to low-income schools. The Obama administration is also pushing for the final bill to include $15 billion for a "race to the top" fund, which would encourage states and districts to create internationally-benchmarked curricular standards and tougher assessments. Under NCLB, many states watered down standards and assessments in order to avoid the legislation's punishing outcomes for schools that did not meet test score thresholds.

The presence of these school "reform" measures within the stimulus package is a good indication of the direction Congressional Democrats and the administration are planning to take later in the year, during the reauthorization process for NCLB. Look for more discussion on national standards and how to move the best teachers to the neediest schools.

Hat tip: GothamSchools.

--Dana Goldstein

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