Duncan challenges states to use stimulus funds creatively

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Think outside the box—or else.

That’s something new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is pressing governors and education leaders to do as they plan how to use stimulus money targeted toward education. So far, it’s unclear whether Illinois’ plans will pass the creativity test.

In a call-in press conference today, Duncan emphasized that states need to come up with innovative ways to use federal stimulus funds—and made clear that those who don’t risk losing out on nearly $5 billion in so-called “race to the top” incentive grants that will be doled out on a competitive basis this year to states, school districts and nonprofit education programs.

 

Think outside the box—or else.

That’s something new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is pressing governors and education leaders to do as they plan how to use stimulus money targeted toward education. So far, it’s unclear whether Illinois’ plans will pass the creativity test.

In a call-in press conference today, Duncan emphasized that states need to come up with innovative ways to use federal stimulus funds—and made clear that those who don’t risk losing out on nearly $5 billion in so-called “race to the top” incentive grants that will be doled out on a competitive basis this year to states, school districts and nonprofit education programs.

 

Duncan made a point of suggesting that districts and schools should consider using the extra dollars they will receive through the stimulus plan to expand the school day and the school year, and also after-school opportunities for disadvantaged children.

“Time matters tremendously,” he said.

But several states, including Illinois, face severe budget shortfalls and are planning to use the bulk of so-called “state stabilization funds” to simply fill in the gaps. It’s unclear if Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget priorities—which do call for modest increases in programs for improving teacher quality and student assessment—will pass the federal “creativity” test.

“Just filling holes isn’t going to get us where we need to go,” Duncan contends.

The state will also send school districts nearly $1 billion in extra federal Title I and special education grants during the next two fiscal years.

Duncan said school districts will also need to demonstrate a flare for innovative thinking, or they too would lose out on the incentive grants. Roughly $650 million will be given to districts and nonprofits.

About half of the $650 million will be available to nonprofits, including charter school operators. “We’re absolutely committed to charter schools and increasing funding for charters,” he added.

Duncan has promised unprecedented transparency in the tracking of federal stimulus spending on schools. Extra audits and clear reporting channels, he says, will help ensure funds are spent wisely. As a next step, the U.S. Department of Education will next week release more details on how stimulus money will flow to states and schools.