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Education stimulus funds only a trickle

Only $7 million out of $312 million in federal stimulus funds for education has actually been allocated to Colorado districts.

Delays and changes in federal rules and the bureaucratic process of processing and approving district applications are the primary culprits for the delay, the State Board of Education was told Thursday.

While the glacier-like flow of funds seems contrary to the stimulus program’s goal of quick economic relief, there’s little danger eligible school districts will lose the funds. The federal deadline for “encumbering” (government jargon for “reserving”) the money doesn’t fall until September 2011. Grants can be spent after that.

The bulk ($257 million) of the $312 million is money allocated for Colorado under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for Title I programs, which serve students in poverty, and for IDEA programs, which serve disabled students. Both of those allocate funds through detailed formulas.

“Why is it taking so long to get funds out?” asked board member Randy DeHoff, R-6th District.

Nina Lopez, who coordinates stimulus programs for the Department of Education, explained that while regular, non-stimulus Title I and IDEA grants are “going out on schedule,” there are several reasons for the delay in the stimulus cash.

“Some of it is a matter of volume … districts have to apply for the [stimulus] funds separately,” Lopez said, meaning there was double the volume of paperwork to handle. “Another piece of it is the need to have [federal] guidance on the use of the funds.” After federal rules solidified, “There was a significant degree of revisions to applications.

“All of those have had the cumulative effect of delaying” granting of actual awards, Lopez said.

(Lopez told the Joint Budget Committee on Friday that an additional $8 million was just about to go out to school districts.)

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones
Education Commissioner Dwight Jones

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones said, “We certainly had some capacity issues” processing requests, but “We’re in a better position now.” He also noted the importance of having applications meet all the federal requirements. “Some of the early requests … had to be sent back because it was not an appropriate use.”

Several other pieces of the stimulus still are up in the air. The federal government only last week issue final guidance for school improvement grants, which are targeted for the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools. Only 13 schools in eight districts are potentially eligible for those funds.
States are still awaiting federal guidance for another innovation grant and for a teacher improvement grant, Lopez said. The state last week filed a $17.5 million application for an educational technology grant.

The slowness of stimulus distribution was noted in a Joint Budget Committee staff briefing paper released last week and is expected to be raised Friday when CDE staff have a question-and-answer session with the JBC.

Although the potential grant amount would be smaller, many educators and the public have been more focused on the Race to the Top portion of the stimulus program.

That $4.3 billion program is a competitive process that will award grants to states for innovation and reform. While some have pinned high hopes to R2T, the potential amount of money available to Colorado is small relative to total K-12 spending.

Lopez said, “we will ask for at least $300 million … we’re going forward with a very aggressive plan.” (A non-binding guidance from the federal government suggests that states in Colorado’s size range might receive only $60 to $175 million. (See this EdNews background story on R2T.)

Half of any R2T award would go to school districts, not the state. So, the state’s application has to include details about the level of agreed participation by local districts. Jones and others, including Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, have been criss-crossing the state in recent weeks trying to enlist local districts in the R2T effort.

CDE information on stimulus programs

New tests will still be high stakes

With development and adoption of state content standards out of the way, CDE has turned its attention to developing a new statewide assessment program.

As Assistant Commissioner Jo O’Brien told the board Thursday, a committee already is working on the project, five specialized subcommittees will be appointed soon and a statewide road tour of public comment meetings is on the calendar. The 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids education reform plan requires SBE to adopt new tests by December 2010.

Discussions to date indicate wide interest in online tests, much more rapid reporting of results than is possible with CSAP and inclusion of “formative” tests in the new system. (In education jargon, “formative” means tests whose results can be used quickly to adjust instruction in the classroom and “summative” tests are designed to measure a student’s progress after a year’s work. The current CSAPs are only summative.

The project involves “the entire redesign of the assessment system,” O’Brien said.

Jones hastened to add that changes won’t lead to what some might see as a watering down of testing. “We’re still going to have a high stakes assessment” for accountability and other purposes, Jones said.

The department also has set up on online survey so educators and citizens can register their opinions about a new testing system. You can fill out that survey here.

Information on the assessment review process

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