The ARRA Funding Cliff: Don’t Jump!

By Robert Pasternack

As we approach the end of this Federal Fiscal Year on Sept. 30, 2011, we come upon the expiration for obligating funds provided under the supplements to Title I and IDEA through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

More than $100 billion of the ARRA funds went to public education, including the supplements to the formula used to disperse Title I and IDEA funding to school districts across our country. But now Local Education Agencies (LEAs) face what has been described as the “funding cliff,” caused by the need to expend these funds. This cliff is dreaded by education leaders left to deal with chronic and persistent fiscal problems facing most of our 15,000 school districts as we begin the 2011–12 school year.

The ARRA funds were used to compensate for some of the funding cuts that have impacted LEAs as a result of reduced revenues and budgets in most states. Much of the ARRA funding went toward saving teaching jobs. Those teaching positions funded by ARRA now face elimination, and Reduction in Force (RIF) actions are being implemented as we go back to school.

Such fiscal challenges are exacerbated by the fact that nearly 85 percent of districts are expecting funding cuts for the 2011–12 school year. Nearly two-thirds of districts will have to cope with cuts in state and local funding of 5 percent or more, and another fifth of districts will face smaller cuts. “Death by a thousand cuts” is coming to public schools, and for the first time in our nation’s history, federal funding for education has been reduced.

 

What to Do About the Funding Cliff

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is recognize that more money in education has not led to improved outcomes and results. The Gates Foundation published data suggesting the increases in public school funding are not correlated with a commensurate improvement in academic achievement. While many talk about increased class size, data do not indicate a relationship between class size and academic achievement. In fact, Utah has America’s largest class sizes and some of the best academic achievement data. Washington DC public schools have one of the highest average per pupil expenditures (APPE) in our country, and some of the worst academic outcomes.

In other words, money is necessary but not sufficient to improve academic achievement. Instead of focusing on class size, we need to focus on the importance of the person teaching that class. The most important variable in education research (apart from socioeconomic status) is the quality of the teacher. Paying teachers more money, like reducing class size, has gained political currency and popularity, absent data to suggest this is requisite to improving academic achievement.

Educators need to focus on what works in order to survive and thrive in these challenging times. There are things we can and must do, including:

  • Building the capacity of teachers and paraeducators to address the instructional needs of students who struggle
  • Making principals into instructional leaders and implementing education reform at the building level
  • Deploying research-validated interventions with fidelity and treatment integrity
  • Conducting and implementing universal screening and progress monitoring
  • Using blended solutions that incorporate technology but are not dependent on that technology
  • Getting parents meaningfully engaged in education and embracing meaningful accountability
  • Teaching all students to read proficiently by the end of third grade
  • Reducing inappropriate referrals to special education
  • Increasing the graduation rate and reducing the unacceptable dropout rates
  • Continuing to fund research and development to find effective interventions and instructional strategies in education (both special education and general education)

What are you doing to ensure that you are making wise decisions about how to deploy the precious resources provided under ARRA, and how have you used these funds to make long-term changes with the short-term infusion of new resources? The cliff is there, but don’t jump! Instead, build a bridge with the resources you have and get to the other side.

Written by Robert Pasternack.

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