School’s Out

School budget uncertainties should inform national stimulus reporting

Over the past week, local papers have been reporting on the bureaucratic bottleneck of education stimulus funds at the state level, which is tripping up schools as they try to figure out their budgets for the upcoming year.

Individually, they’re small stories, but the message in all is somewhat the same: there’s still a lot of uncertainty at the local level of how much stimulus money will be available to individual schools, and how soon it will reach school coffers. National reporters writing about stimulus funding for education should make better use of these ground-floor entanglements to guide their coverage, even though they are admittedly not as sexy as stories about breaking ground on construction projects.

In Pennsylvania and Michigan, for instance, newspaper reports have illustrated how schools are unable to figure out their budgets for the coming year (due June 30) because of state wrangling over stimulus money. The Sentinel, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, reported earlier this week that several lawmakers have suggested that the state budget debate will linger into July, past schools’ own budget deadlines.

Reports from local school boards and district superintendents also highlight the uncertainty that permeates the bottom—but arguably the most important—rung of the stimulus food chain. A Minnesota Public Radio segment includes an interview with a superintendent who says “his impression is that a lot of people in the community think stimulus money will save the day and prevent district cuts, but it won’t.” (In Michigan, Governor Jennifer Granholm has said the same thing.)

In Patterson, California, the district’s budget presentation displayed a mix of the specific (the deficit amount) and the vague (the stimulus amount):

His report shows the general fund with a $648,437 deficit. However, the district hopes an infusion of federal stimulus money will balance the budget, [assistant superintendent Steve] Menge said.

It’s like knowing what size Band-Aid is needed for a scrape, but not knowing whether the size needed is the size you’ll get. Similarly, the St. James Plain Dealer in Minnesota, covering a local school board meeting, reported the following under the headline, “School Board makes more cuts as wait on stimulus funds continues”:

Financial relief should be available soon with Governor Pawlenty making provisions for the state stimulus plan. However, the question of how much money is still very much in question. $700,000-plus was the number thrown around at Monday night’s meeting.

A final example: at a school board meeting in Santa Barbara, some proposed budget cuts, such as increasing class size, came with specific dollar amounts of how much would be saved, while discussion of the idea of using federal stimulus money to offer “golden handshakes”—incentives to teachers to take early retirement—remained necessarily vague since no one knew when or if or how much money would be available for it.

These are small points, and they’re to some extent inevitable as the federal money makes its way slowly down to the individual school level. But they emphasize just how mushy some of the projections of aid at the local level are.

And that reality is not reflected well enough in national reporting. Take today’s Wall Street Journal article, which reports on Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s effort to use stimulus money to pressure states on the topic of charter schools. Here’s how it opens:

The Obama Administration’s $100 billion in “stimulus” for schools has mostly been a free lunch — the cash dispensed by formula in return for vague promises of reform. So we were glad to hear that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is now planning to spend some of that money to press states on charter schools.

Now, this is an article about charter schools, not about bureaucratic entanglements slowing down the disbursal process. Even so, the lede is indicative of the way national coverage often frames the stimulus-for-schools story—it (legitimately) criticizes the inefficiency of the process, but the derogatory term “vague” still lands on the schools, as though they are the ones unable to sharpen the focus on this free-money game. There’s too much of a gap between this formulation that derides the murky cause-and-effect of stimulus funds, and the street-level reports that make quite clear who is bearing the brunt of that murkiness.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.