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Stimulus funds have helped Oakland schools, but what happens now?

on January 16, 2010

In Bay Area road construction zones these days, drivers see ubiquitous signs that read: “Putting America to work: Project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” Transportation projects constitute the largest grants in the federal government’s “stimulus package” coming into Oakland, including more than $192 million for the 4th bore of the Caldecott Tunnel.

While these transportation projects may be the most visible signs of federal dollars, more than $17 million of the Bay Area’s stimulus money has ended up in Oakland’s public school classrooms. This money has helped lessen the impact of the California budget crisis, at least for now.

“We were extremely grateful for the stimulus money, but it was a one-time windfall,” said Troy Flint, the Oakland Unified School District’s spokesman.

The February 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act earmarked nearly $800 billion in tax cuts and federal funds to jumpstart the economy. The program aims to create and save jobs, spur economic growth and “foster unprecedented levels of accountability and transparency in government spending,” according to, the U.S. government’s official website tracking stimulus grants.

Almost one year after President Obama signed the stimulus bill into law, Oakland schools are considering cutting their budget by $36 million. “This year when we don’t have this luxury [of stimulus funds], the effects of the budget cuts are going to be more severe,” Flint said.

That’s not to say that stimulus funds didn’t make a difference in 2009. The Oakland Unified School District received more than $13 million in grants for special education and assistance to low-income (Title I) schools. It also received discretionary money from a portion of the stimulus package known as the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund.

The California Department of Education disbursed these funds to school districts proportionally, using formulas for each issue area. All districts had to do was submit an application. “The process was fairly straightforward,” Flint said. “It was determined by the number of students and low-income students. So, proportionally [Oakland] would get more.”

Special Education
The bulk of the stimulus money OUSD received—about $10 million—went to special education for students with disabilities. Fifteen percent of that $10 million went toward identifying students with disabilities, with the rest helping those already in special education programs.

The 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act stipulates that if the district cannot meet a student’s special education needs, it is obligated to pay that student’s tuition at a school that can. With this requirement in mind, the OUSD used some of its stimulus money to hire and train staff to provide ongoing support in two middle-school classrooms to prevent students with disabilities from transferring to private schools. Next year, those staff will continue the program in other classrooms.

Funds were also used to support new and struggling teachers in classroom management. “They provided training, support to teachers for specific students that are difficult to deal with in classrooms,” according to Lisa Cole, an OUSD special education executive director. “[These funds gave teachers] tools to change student behavior and increase the ability of students to access the curriculum.”

Finally, the district piloted interactive whiteboards in 20 special education classrooms to increase students’ access to curriculum content. “We haven’t even come close to spending or allocating the money to other projects,” Cole said in an e-mail.

But even though there’s still some stimulus money left in OUSD coffers, it won’t put a dent in the district’s anticipated $36 million deficit for 2010-11.

“You know, you don’t need to be an economist to know that jobs are the engine of our economy,” Vice President Joe Biden said when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law.  The top priority outlined in the stimulus package is job creation and retention. With this goal in mind, OUSD used 85 percent of the non-special education stimulus funds it received—more than $3 million—to prevent hundreds of teachers from being laid off at low-income, Title 1 schools. “[Those funds] were tremendously helpful to avoid layoffs at a critical time,” Flint said.

The roughly $900,000 that was left over went to central district offices to provide schools with support, pay for new classroom materials and increase security and anti-violence counseling.

Charter Schools
Thirty-eight of the stimulus grants from the Department of Education went to charter schools, including seven schools in North Oakland. Superintendent Mark Ryan of The Oakland Military Institute charter school used nearly all of that school’s funds to save jobs. While there were no strings attached to the money, Ryan said he felt strongly encouraged to prevent layoffs.  Without money to retain the equivalent of four teachers, the school would have had to increase class sizes from 25 to 35.

As reported recently on Oakland North, charter school funding is a controversial subject in Oakland.

Charter schools are publicly funded, independently run schools that students opt to attend.  The schools operate under charters granted—or taken away—by the district. “Charter schools become a way for people to try something that a traditional public school can’t try,” Ryan said. For example, the Oakland Military Institute uses a military model to develop student’s personal discipline and leadership skills with a particular emphasis on getting into college.

Critics say charter schools remove resources from school districts and privatize education. Fabiola Harvey—chief operating officer for the nonprofit organization Education for Change, which runs three charter schools in Oakland—doesn’t think so. “Funding follows students,” she said.

Charter schools receive money from the state for each student enrolled in their program. The three schools run by Education for Change focus on professional development for their teachers.  Each school has a team of coaches providing an extra level of support to teachers.

“We are a little bit more expensive.  Especially the first year,” Harvey said. “You build at the beginning—then you hope to maintain.”

According to Flint, the OUSD spokesman, 17 percent of Oakland’s public school students attend charter schools.  However, charter schools received 23 percent of the Department of Education grants coming into Oakland.  Flint said he doesn’t have a problem with the charter schools receiving funds. “We’re trying to get away from an adversarial mentality and just get at what’s good in either system,” he said.

Education for Change’s Harvey said the fact that charter schools were included in the stimulus demonstrates the Obama administration’s support for charter schools. “Otherwise they would have kicked us out of the game,” she said. But Carol Bingham of the California Department of Education said funding priorities didn’t intentionally favor charter schools.

What Can Schools Do in the Future?
As the California budget crisis continues, the future of school funding is uncertain. “Everybody is sort of on eggshells, wondering ‘Are we all going to have jobs next year?’” Ryan said.

These funding limitations may mean fewer programs, more students in classrooms and eventually lower test scores.

“When the cuts are that deep, you have to transform the entire school district. You have to re-envision the entire structure,” Flint said.

In July, President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Race to the Top, a competition for new education funds. The program is partially funded through American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.

“The $4.35 billion Race to the Top program that we are unveiling today is a challenge to states and districts,” Duncan said at the July announcement. “We’re looking to drive reform, reward excellence and dramatically improve our nation’s schools.”

“Not every state will win and not every school district will be happy with the results,” Obama added.

On the phone from the California Department of Education, Bingham said, “We’re all busy working to get the Race to Top application together.”  The deadline for Phase One of the competition is January 19.

“We’re hopeful like everyone else,” Harvey said. “I was very happy with getting the federal help. I think that will continue because they can’t leave the schools without money.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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