The nation's students, schools, and universities stand to receive about one sixth of the $800 billion economic stimulus package passed by the House of Representatives Wednesday evening, a proportion that amounts to the largest increase in federal money for education in nearly half a century.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, which the Senate will begin debating Monday, is comprehensive in its effort to aid struggling early childhood, elementary, secondary, and higher education systems. The plan proposes renovations to crumbling school buildings, greater access to prekindergarten classrooms, and increased aid for disadvantaged students, among other initiatives. While most Democrats see the education spending as vital to jump-starting the economy, many Republicans worry the expenditures won't stimulate anything but will have a lasting impact on how much the federal government spends on education in the future.
Rep. George Miller of California chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor and says a consensus opinion from school officials, governors, and leading economists about the impact a sound education system can have on a growing economy led House Democrats to include such a hefty chunk of education spending in the stimulus package. Record declines in auto sales and property taxes influenced the plan's allocation of $79 billion to states facing massive budget shortfalls. Miller says this influx of cash will prevent states from needing to slash their education budgets to make up the difference and thus will prevent hundreds of thousands of teachers and school personnel from losing their jobs. "We're trying to deliver money in the most efficient fashion to districts that need it the most," Miller says.
School renovation and construction is another stimulus package priority, one for which the federal government traditionally has never before provided significant funds. Miller says the $20 billion allocated for school renovation and construction serves the dual purpose of repairing broken facilities and helping those facilities become more energy efficient. An additional $1 billion will be spent to install or modernize classroom technology. Unlike the funds being routed directly to states that aim to prevent layoffs, these funds will create new construction jobs and will do so quickly since many school districts already have approval for renovation projects they never started.
To aid the next generation of working Americans, the stimulus package contains funding that will directly influence the availability and quality of education for students at all levels. For preschool students, the plan includes $2 billion to expand access to prekindergarten classrooms. Right now, only 1 in 7 students eligible for prekindergarten is enrolled in such a program. For disadvantaged and disabled primary and secondary students, the plan will provide $26 billion in additional funds to schools that qualify for Title I and IDEA funding. And for college students, the plan increases the maximum amount available to Pell grant recipients by $500. Half a billion dollars more will aid college students by funding additional work-study jobs for both undergraduate and graduate students.
Miller says the stimulus will not fill all the educational finance gaps in many states, but he says the plan is a concentrated effort to give as much relief as possible "to get through this difficult time and not jeopardize the quality of the education we're providing our students."
Rep. Buck McKeon of California, the House Committee on Education and Labor's ranking Republican member, agrees that the educational gaps Miller speaks of exist. He and other Republicans disagree, however, that spending federal dollars to try to close them will actually stimulate the economy. McKeon says it is not the federal government's responsibility to pick up the slack for states that mismanaged their budgets. Though McKeon supports increasing federal funding for Title 1, IDEA and Pell grants, he says the Democrats should follow the traditional appropriations process.
McKeon is not alone in his dislike for the stimulus proposal: Not a single House Republican voted in favor of the measure Wednesday evening. Instead of spending on education, the package, McKeon says, should have focused more on private-sector job creation. "Helping Americans get back to work so they can pay rent, purchase groceries, or buy a house is what will stimulate our failing economy, not sending more children to preschool," McKeon says.