Education Stimulus Watch: Special Report 2

In early 2009, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the federal government's nearly $800 billion stimulus legislation. According to key members of Congress and the Obama administration, the education portions of the law, totaling about $100 billion, were designed both to preserve jobs and programs and to reform primary and secondary schooling. Education reformers have reason to be disappointed with what has transpired to date. Looking forward, though, there are some reasons for hope, though the prospect of meaningful reform of America's schools is still far from certain.

The AEI Education Stimulus Watch (ESW) series examines whether this unprecedented federal investment in schooling is yielding innovation and improvement or merely subsidizing the status quo. The first report in the series described and analyzed the key education components of the stimulus legislation and explained why they were unlikely to deliver the benefits promised by some of the law's proponents. Now, more than half a year after ARRA's passage, as U.S. students head back to school, voters and taxpayers have the opportunity to take stock.

This second ESW reports on the key education portions of the ARRA by tracking their contributions to the legislation's three points of leverage for reform. The first is the approximately $75 billion in formula-based programs intended to fill the state and district budget holes caused by plunging revenues. The U.S. Department of Education has exhorted states and districts to use these programs, collectively referred to as "Recovery-First Funds" in the previous report, to reform schools and school systems. Unfortunately, there is little or no evidence they have done so.

Second, offering more cause for optimism is the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, a pot of funds that the U.S. secretary of education can direct to states he deems most committed to education reform. While these funds have not yet been distributed, preliminary documents issued by the Department of Education indicate an encouraging commitment to reform. There are, however, reasons to question how well this federal commitment will translate into practice.

Finally, there is the issue of whether the ARRA has prompted improvements in state education policies. Though this was not an explicit purpose of the legislation, the administration has sought to use the lure of the competitive Race to the Top fund to coax states into passing reform-oriented legislation. This strategy has already achieved some measure of success, and there is the potential for more on the horizon, but like the Race to the Top fund itself, we must guard against assuming that changes in state policy necessarily lead to real improvement—or even that changes in statute necessarily lead to meaningful changes in practice.

Click here to view this report as an Adobe Acrobat PDF.

Andy Smarick (asmarick@edexcellence.net), a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of education, is an adjunct fellow at AEI and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Read his post on AEI's Enterprise Blog here.

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