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Welcome to the Education Law Corner

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Well, the moment has come for my own inauguration – into blogging, that is – and I admit to some nervousness. But I have only myself to blame; as a longtime member of the Notebook, I’ve nodded an enthusiastic “yes” every time someone said that we should start creating more on-line material. So I could hardly refuse when asked to write a few paragraphs each week on something that’s happening in the area of education law.

Education laws come in all sizes, from extra-small to jumbo – and this is a week for super-jumbo, in the form of the proposed economic stimulus bill. As currently discussed, the bill would include about $120 billion in new dollars for education.

Personally, I’m still having some trouble with the notion that we couldn’t afford to improve our schools when the economy was booming – but that we suddenly have plenty of money now that there isn’t any money. But that surreal point aside, there’s an obvious opportunity here.

To be sure, the money is not going to be shoveled out of the back of a truck with no strings attached (we tried that with the first round of stimulus funds, as I understand it, and the results were unimpressive).The President’s stimulus message says, in broad terms, where he wants the funds to go – preschool, higher education, facility renovations, and then “preventing teacher layoffs and education cuts …, maintaining key reforms, and ensuring all schools have advanced technology for the 21st century economy.” And various versions of the proposed bill, such as the “discussion draft” offered by the House Appropriations Committee, attach specific numbers to these priorities.

But there will probably still be lots of room for choice, at the state and school district level, about how the money will be spent. That’s always how it works – whether we’re talking about state education dollars, or NCLB funds, or local taxes. And of course, that’s where public demand could make a difference – especially on points that might otherwise be forgotten.

So when Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia, get some of the stimulus funds for education, how do we want them used? Some of the answers are clear — class size reduction, technology, facilities. But what about some things that aren’t so much on the tips of political tongues right now – such as reopening school libraries and maybe keeping them open beyond school hours? An Inquirer article from this week describes the current school library situation, which is beyond unacceptable. Expanding mentoring and job experience programs? Arts, music, sports? Hiring more counselors and social workers, so that students could find an available adult when they needed one?

I don’t have the answers. But students, parents, teachers and administrators do know what their schools need the most – and it’s probably not so much about changes in management, or “making AYP,” as about things that could make the school day a more humane and positive experience, because that’s a prerequisite if learning is to take place.

Really, it’s a discussion we should have every year. But if it takes a market collapse and the prospect of a “stimulus” to stimulate the conversation, so be it. And let’s start off by asking the people who actually live in our schools – students, families, educators – what they need most.