The more than $100 billion allocated for education in the administration's stimulus package will take some time to trickle down to local school districts. In some cases, the money may not arrive soon enough to avert more layoffs and budget cuts. But that isn't stopping superintendents and teachers from thinking about how to spend it.
In one rural West Virginia school district, plans are already under way for both the short and long terms as Larry Gillespie, the superintendent of schools in Clay County, just north of Charleston, inspects wind damage to the roof of one of his schools.
Gillespie says roof repairmen estimate it will cost between $8,000 and $10,000 to fix the damage, and with no local property tax base to speak of — Clay County is the second poorest county in the state — schools here have always struggled to pay their bills. So Gillespie is thankful for the stimulus bill.
"It could really be a big benefit to us to have that funding," he says. Gillespie says it may help the school district not just get through the economic crisis, but jump-start some long-term improvements as well.
"I think we can do as much with that money to help kids get to the level that people want them to be at as anybody can," he says.
Right now, for example, Gillespie says he desperately needs a new data system to track students' progress. He also needs to hire people who can show his teachers how to use technology, he needs more reading and math coaches, and he needs to rehire several janitors.
This is the one thing Gillespie can do right now, knowing that the stimulus funds are on their way, so he's meeting with about a dozen applicants — a few are his former students.
Investing In Children
Clay County is losing so many jobs that more and more people are looking to the only place that's hiring — the schools. But Gillespie points out that for all the talk about the stimulus bill creating or protecting jobs, that's not nearly as important as the investment in schoolchildren.
But Gillespie can't begin to make that investment until he knows how much money Clay County is going to get.
"The stimulus bill has got so many twists and turns, every time they have a meeting they delete or add something. I just want to see the finished copy, then I'll know what to do," he says.
For now, public schools in West Virginia have had to put their budget decisions on hold, which is why the state's school superintendent Steven Paine was in Washington recently — to get some answers.
Paine met with Vice President Joe Biden, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and state school chiefs from across the country. He didn't learn much more, but still, he was upbeat.
"We don't know exactly the rules and the regulations that will guide the distribution of funds," he says. "The purpose for these monies is not just to create jobs in the short term, but to implement a long-term vision for the next four years, at least."
That's assuming that the stimulus funds for education continue to flow for that long, which is a real possibility says former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise.
"I think there will be a higher level of federal funding than has been in the past, but that will have to come with changes that result in higher student outcomes," Wise says.
Wise now heads the Alliance for Excellent Education, a school reform group that's closely monitoring the stimulus bill. He says that if states adopt real reforms and show how the stimulus money will be spent to sharpen students' skills, it will be very hard for Congress to pull back the extra funding.
"We can't come out of this having invested vast amounts of money, still having a 30 percent dropout rate in this country, and another 30 percent graduating from high schools not ready for college or the modern workplace," Wise says, adding that the economic crisis is going to force schools to act on what the nation has been debating for the past 20 years.