Politics & Government

Fresno superintendent hopes stimulus education funds get to schools

WASHINGTON -- Fresno Unified School District Superintendent Michael Hanson worries that Sacramento will peel away education funds provided in a big economic stimulus bill.

He's not alone. Meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other top White House officials Monday, urban educators fretted about the fate of $100 billion in new school funds. They fear the money may get stuck in cash-strapped state capitals instead of flowing all the way to local school districts.

"We're very concerned that it actually reach us," Hanson said while standing on the White House driveway.

Hanson was one of about two dozen educators meeting Monday in the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House. Members of the Council of Great City Schools, the superintendents and school board trustees huddled with Obama administration officials for about two hours, hashing out funding details.

The new education funding was included in the $787 billion economic stimulus bill

"There's never been so much money available," Duncan said, adding that "this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that we haven't seen in decades."

At the same time, Duncan stressed that he'll be expecting school districts will use at least some of the new funding to "challenge the status quo." This could mean making school days longer, adding to the school year or aggressively recruiting new high-quality teachers.

School districts promising such innovations could compete well for about $5 billion in competitive grants provided through the stimulus package, Duncan said. The other $95 billion included in the stimulus package will be distributed according to existing funding formulae.

"That's very, very attractive to us," Hanson said of the potential competitive grants.

Overall, Hanson estimated the Fresno school district could potentially gain at least $56 million in additional funds under the stimulus bill signed by President Barack Obama last month. The money would support programs serving low-income and disabled students, vocational education and more.

The Title I program, aiding low-income students, will be among the biggest recipients. It is also one of the first education programs for which district-by-district allocations are available. Fresno Unified's Title I share of the stimulus package, for instance, totals $37 million. The Modesto elementary and high school districts together would get $6.1 million in new Title I funds and Merced elementary and high school districts would get $4.1 million.

All told, preliminary Education Department estimates show California receiving $8.5 billion in education funding from the stimulus package. The jolt of funding is far beyond what had been provided during the prior Bush administration.

"They're not even different worlds," Hanson said when asked about the funding differences "They're different galaxies."

But with many states sharing California's budget distress, the educators who arrived in Washington over the weekend advised Duncan and top White House adviser Valerie Jarrett that the new funding stream could get diverted before it reaches the schools. Hanson noted the worrying only worsened last Friday, when California's Legislative Analyst's Office predicted the state still faced an $8 billion budget shortfall.

Hanson said Obama administration officials are still figuring out "the intricacies" of the funding process, including ways to ensure local school districts get the stimulus money they need. The Education Department is supposed to distribute the first $44 billion in stimulus funding over the next six weeks, with the remainder provided by Sept. 30.

The new funding surge could prove particularly taxing for state administrators already struggling with federal dollars. In a new audit coincidentally released late last week, the Education Department's Office of Inspector General warned that the California Department of Education had "inadequate and inconsistent" procedures for disbursing certain federal funds.