The economic stimulus package before the Senate contains nearly $160 billion in spending for education. That's enough to more than double what the federal government currently spends. But before schools get a dime, some lawmakers want to put the money into a separate bill — or at the very least make sure it's not wasted on unnecessary, ineffective programs.
Few deny that school districts in many parts of the country are hurting, but they have a lot more belt-tightening to do, says Richard Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.
"Nobody wants to have pain or discomfort," Hess says.
In other words, says Hess, if Congress is going to set aside nearly $160 billion in stimulus funds for education over the next two years, why not see this as an opportunity to rid school systems of ineffective programs and bloated bureaucracies?
"Those are the kinds of steps that you need political cover of tough times to ever take on," he says.
Bloated bureaucracies are a myth, at least in her district, says Margaret Smith, superintendent of schools in Volusia County, Fla.
"I mean we're hurting, we are truly hurting, so for the federal government to provide funding for schools is the right thing to do," Smith says. "Should they micro-manage that and put strings on it in terms of telling us what programs or how to spend the money to support student achievement? No. But should we be accountable? Yes."
Smith says Volusia's budget problems began mounting over a year ago when the state began slashing education funds because of a $6 billion budget shortfall. Now, in the middle of the school year, Smith says she has to cut another $14 million on top of the $45 million she cut last fall.
"And what that really means for us is the reduction of about 500 teaching positions about 250 support positions at the schools," she says.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says that by spring, 46 states will have cut school funding dramatically.
"The stories I've heard from the country are chilling," Weingarten says. "Things like field trips, after-school programs — those have already been cut. You're now starting to talk about things like kindergarten hours cut back. Schools and libraries are being closed, nurses laid off. We need relief right now, directly to classrooms."
But Hess thinks stimulus funds should be spent on things that will save money in the long run, like cutting-edge technologies, new data systems and research.
"Let's invest the money in way that we're building knowledge tools and opportunities but not simply underwriting current expenditures," he says.
Weingarten disagrees, saying that's no way to deal with the problem of bare-bones school budgets.
"We have a crisis now, and the crisis is about making sure that we give to our kids what they need, not that somebody starts with an ideological battle," she says. "We've had eight years of that. This is about helping now."
With the stimulus bill now going to the Senate for approval, Republican leaders there are already balking at the latest figures for things like school modernization and construction, special education, Head Start and grants for needy college students.
"What has happened is we've begun to stuff programs that many of us approve of, have fought for — but this is supposed to be a piece of legislation that is supposed to create jobs in the next six months or next year," says Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who serves as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.
Alexander says lawmakers should focus on job creation, and when the stimulus bill arrives in the Senate next week, Alexander will propose that the money targeted for schools — the precise figure is $159 billion — be debated as a separate education bill.