This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Even though the federal role in education is the subject of constant attention, until recently the federal government’s contribution to all the money spent on K-12 schooling in the United States has been pretty small—only about 8 percent.
Yet, since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) during the George W. Bush administration, federal influence has had a profound and unprecedented impact on what happens inside schools and classrooms.
That influence shows no sign of waning in the Obama administration. In fact, the impact of federal aid and Washington-driven policies is increasing under Obama.
On top of boosting the amount of recurring federal aid, the administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided an enormous one-time infusion of education dollars equivalent to around a year’s worth of education expenditures. The stimulus funds caused the 2009-2010 federal share of education spending to surge to 10.5 percent.
Like most cities with high percentages of low-income students, Philadelphia gets a higher percentage of money from federal aid than the average. But under Obama, that share has dramatically increased from its usual range of 10 to 12 percent to 21 percent last year and 23 percent this year.
Most of this surge is due to stimulus dollars, including those from the recent Education Jobs Bill that Obama signed on September 13. And while welcome now, it may present the District with a problem down the road. “Either we will have recurring revenues that replace the non-recurring stimulus revenues….or we’re going to have to cut spending,” said Michael Masch, the District’s chief financial officer.
Beyond the stimulus, Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, are using federal dollars to leverage change. They have taken the philosophy of the Bush administration and NCLB to a new level by distributing some $4 billion in aid to states through a competition called Race to the Top (RttT). The money was awarded this year to 12 states, based on their willingness to adopt specific reforms favored by the administration.
“Pennsylvania seems to have made the decision right from the get-go that it was going to take an uncritical view of Race to the Top and look at it as a funding opportunity and embrace the policy initiatives,” said James “Torch” Lytle, a professor at the Graduate School of Education of the University of Pennsylvania and a former administrator in Philadelphia.
Especially regarding the turnaround of low-performing schools, the reform approaches of Ackerman and the SRC, were fundamentally in sync with the RttT priorities.
“Philadelphia is a leading case as a city that has embraced all of these policy initiatives,” Lytle said. Besides Renaissance Schools, the aggressive school turnaround initiative, he cited a large network of charter schools and unprecedented accountability provisions in its latest contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Seven Renaissance Schools have been converted to charters and another six given makeovers as Promise Academies under the District. In all those schools, a majority of the staff were replaced, and nearly all have new principals.
But, in the RttT competition, Pennsylvania did not take high-profile state-level actions specifically designed to enhance its chances, like passing legislation on charter schools or teacher compensation.
Pennsylvania qualified for $400 million under RttT, and was a finalist in both rounds. If the state had won, the money would have cushioned the blow of losing the stimulus dollars. Philadelphia alone was in line for some $100 million of RttT money.
In addition to failing to win RttT funds, Philadelphia was not awarded the $5 million it hoped for from the smaller competition-based Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) to upgrade its data system.
Bruce Baker, associate professor at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, suggested that the Commonwealth had already taken a bold step worthy of federal recognition by adopting a new education funding formula in 2008 that is based on bringing all school districts to spending “adequacy.” But fair funding is not a favored reform strategy of RttT.
“With its new adoption of the funding formula and its partial phase-in, Pennsylvania would be much more deserving than Delaware or Tennessee,” Baker said, citing the two Round One winners of RttT.
Duncan argues that states that did not win RttT will still gain from the school reforms established as they prepared to the competition. He said other sources of federal funding will support the continuation of RttT-inspired changes.
“Every state that applied will benefit from this consensus-building process,” Duncan said in a July speech at the National Press Club. “Much of the federal dollars we distribute though other channels can support their plan to raise standards, improve teaching, use data more effectively to support student learning, and turn around under-performing schools.”
Although it has already had a far-reaching effect on state and local policies, RttT is only a small piece of overall federal spending on education. In giving states a menu, albeit limited, of reform strategies, it represents an approach distinct from Bush’s NCLB.
Under NCLB, states had to meet specific requirements—including testing all students in certain grades and publishing the results broken down by race and other subgroups—in order to qualify for the largest chunk of federal aid, Title I, which is earmarked for low-income and low-achieving students.
“Bush asked everyone to do pretty much the same thing” as opposed to giving them a set of choices, said Charles Barone, director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that favors market-based educational strategies. Obama’s position, Barone said, is, “‘Well, we have some things we’d like people to look at but not everyone has to do these, and it can look different from state to state.’” .
Obama favors some changes in NCLB, but reauthorization has stalled in Congress.
While RttT and i3 asked states to submit proposals that were “innovative,” Baker said that the restrictions placed on states vying for the money are likely to hinder true innovation.
The Obama administration has “a pretty narrow definition of innovative,” he said. In his view, the policy is, “We want you to be innovative by painting a red house with a green roof and a tree with leaves.”
Similarly, there has been debate over whether rewarding programs that have been around a while, like Teach for America (TFA), is really promoting innovation. The biggest i3 grants went to “scale-up” initiatives like TFA and the KIPP charter schools.
“The i3 grants are ostensibly about innovation, but the truth is when grants were awarded, almost all significant grants went to established ‘innovation,’” said Lytle.
Michael Rebell, who filed the lawsuit that led to driving more dollars to high-needs districts in New York state, also said that he worried about some of the Obama priorities.
“Teachers unions are concerned about the emphasis of student scores in evaluations,” said Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Education Equality and a professor at the Teachers College at Columbia University. “We haven’t perfected the art of value-added accountability. It’s not fair to judge teachers based on it. To make that a prime policy objective that’s driving money, for me, is a bit of a problem.”
He is also concerned about the growing power of the U.S. Department of Education. “This has given Duncan much more influence and power than any federal Secretary of Education has ever had,” he said.
And the Obama-Duncan focus on competitive grants rather than on fair funding for all districts “raises some real issues about education finance equity,” Rebell said.
“The difference is that the Bush administration simply ignored [adequacy and equity]. The Obama administration has arguably sidetracked it,” Baker added. The issue of how states distribute their education aid among districts is arguably off the table now, even if inequities remain. Instead, he said, the policies have put the focus on disparities within districts, not among them.