EdMedia Commons Archive

Five Questions For … CEP’s Diane Rentner, on How Stimulus Funds Saved Education Jobs, Spurred School Reforms

The Center on Education Policy’s new report on the ARRA stimulus funds concludes that the federal dollars did help save education jobs nationally, and also encouraged a common reform agenda among states. CEP deputy director Diane Rentner, co-author of the new report, spoke with EWA about the findings.

1. The stimulus funds clearly helped in the short term. Could there be a downside in the long term to the federal intervention?
I think that’s a state-by-state issue. In the states that were hardest hit by the recession, the stimulus saved some education jobs and helped maintain some service levels in districts. When those funds go away, it’s going to be worse in the short term and potentially in the long-term as well. Some other states that the recession didn’t impact as much, such as Wyoming, which had the cushion of money coming in from oil, the stimulus funds were an additional set of money to do some new things.

2. The CEP report determined the stimulus funds spurred some reform efforts. Which initiatives made the most progress?
The most progress was probably on the Common Core State Standards. States weren’t required to adopt anything new (as a condition of receiving the ARRA funds) but the Common Core was coming along at the same time, and more than 40 states have since signed on. States have also made significant strides on their longitudinal data systems. There has been recognition for a long time (link to America Competes Act) that we need to be able to follow students. That’s been something difficult for many states, when the district next door is doing it a different way. Creating unified systems within the states will pay off.

3. Which initiatives haven’t made as much progress?
When it came to making sure there was an equitable distribution of well-qualified teachers and providing support and assistance to low-performing schools, states were not doing as much in those two areas. Those were traditionally local activities, so while states provided some level of assistance or help with strategies, it was a lower level of involvement.

4. Are these reforms that can sit in limbo until state-level funding is restored, or will they have to start over again?
The Common Core State Standards aren’t fully implemented yet because the assessments aren’t in place. The longitudinal data systems are something states should have up and running, and it’s going to have a lot of benefits to teachers, students and parents. The things that are most challenging are the reforms related to teacher quality issues and low-performing schools. You can see where that’s contingent upon funding. There was federal money through the School Improvement Grants to help states in some of these areas, but it wasn’t enough money to help every eligible school. States are still going to carry out some activities, but it’s not going to be as robust or as deep.

5. What surprised you in the findings?
The biggest surprise might have been the coalescing around reform. People initially say  w this money as a way to save teaching jobs, or to help districts maintain programs and services. I don’t think there was much expectation about what the impact would be on the reform side.

One thing that isn’t necessarily in the report, but it’s something I think you can deduce, is that people in the wider community don’t really understand the full impact of the stimulus funds. It could have been so much worse for schools. For many districts, those dollars provided a bridge in a difficult time. But it’s not like driving down a highway where you see signs that “this road was repaired using ARRA funds.” There’s no sign on the door of a school building that reads “Ten teaching jobs were saved here by the stimulus.”

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.