Education Funds Are Jeopardized As Stimulus Money Expires

04/11/2011 06:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2011

NEW YORK -- New programs slashed. Schools closed. Even more teachers fired.

These and other cutbacks threaten to dismantle the lives of school children returning to class across the country come September when federal stimulus funding dries up.

Schools are preparing to lose more than $97.4 billion in federal stimulus funding from 2009's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With the loss of that money, the profound fiscal wounds many urban school systems are already feeling from reduced state aid and sinking property tax revenues will only get worse. Maintaining education funds in cities from Miami-Dade to Boston largely depends on the state budgets currently being debated in capitol buildings from coast to coast.

For the past two years, stimulus funds have played a large part in keeping teachers in classrooms in many districts. The United States Department of Education had mandated averting layoffs as a key guiding principle for distributing the funds and schools used the money to hold onto teachers who would have otherwise been fired during the recession.

"Without [the stimulus], we would have had a situation with extensive chaos in schools," said John McDonough, Chief Financial Officer of Boston Public Schools.

While the $10 billion federal Education Jobs Fund -- known as edujobs -- is helping to stem the bleeding, educators and administrators still worry about the gap.

Florida's 2,000 education workers in the Miami-Dade district -- the country's fourth largest school system -- are now being paid by stimulus money, according to Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. The number of these employees who can keep their jobs depends on the outcome of the state's budget deliberations.

In New York, public support for schools has dropped by 7.5 percent -- $1.86 billion -- over the last two years. New York's $5 billion piece of the stimulus funds narrowed the cut to $527 million.

"Stimulus money helped fill a hole that was created by this drastic cut in state aid," said Carl Korn, a spokesman for the New York State United Teachers. "It helped retain thousands of teaching jobs."

The expiration of stimulus funds makes the state's budget shortcomings feel a whole lot worse. According to Korn, Syracuse sent off 514 layoff notices for the next year. Rochester sent out 922. As many as 15,800 jobs could be eliminated for the 2011-'12 academic year -- and that's just from 300 of the state's 700 school districts that have reported next year's layoffs. In upstate Bethlehem, budget shortfalls caused Clarksville Elementary School to shut down.

The city of Los Angeles used the bulk of its $883.5 million to save 8,443 jobs. Ellen Morgan, a communications officer for the school district, said she "won't know the final number" of these jobs that will be lost until later. Los Angeles received $103 million in Edujobs money -- and has used none of it so far -- which could provide somewhat of a cushion.

In addition to saving jobs, officials directed stimulus funds toward restoring school programs, Title I programs for poor students and special education. $4.35 billion went also toward the Race to the Top, a competition aimed at encouraging education reform.

Some cities used the money to start new programs, many of which are now on the chopping block.

Chicago Public Schools used a large chunk of its $260 million in stimulus money to create a youth violence prevention initiative that targeted at-risk students and used the classroom setting to provide them with support they lacked at home. With the looming expiration of the funding, it will be the first target of cuts, said Monique Bond, CPS communications officer.

But Jackson Potter, staff coordinator of the Chicago Teachers Union, says complaints about the end of stimulus funding are much ado about nothing -- or very little.

"The district is always crying wolf about money," he said. "The end of stimulus money gives them a way to blame problems on lack of funding instead of creating a proper set of priorities to give schools what they need." He said he felt money had been wasted on standardized tests and area offices for the administration.

While most districts are scrambling to fill budget gaps, McDonough said Boston is prepared. While using the stimulus dollars to boost remedial support, creating "acceleration academies" -- an extra week of instruction in troubled schools -- Boston also cut costs by increasing class size and through other restructuring measures.

So far, the funds for continuing the acceleration academies do not exist, but the governor's budget proposal includes a reimbursement to revive the program. "We are confident that the state money will come through," said Seth Racine, deputy CFO of Boston Public Schools.

In Miami-Dade, which received $425 million over two years, Carvalho is more worried. "It will create a great deal of stress to an already stressed system, particularly in the state of Florida where the economic recovery is so much slower than the rest of the country because of the housing bust," he said. Depending on the state budget, programs supported by hourly staff would be reduced or cut.

And while Carvalho calls himself a proponent of "holistic education," which includes art and music programs, he said the parameters of state education funding in Florida leave his hands tied. "Our ability to protect these programs depends on how far the state will to go make up that funding gap," he said.