Some Rich Districts Get Richer as Aid Is Rushed to Schools
By SAM DILLON
Published: March 21, 2009
RANDOLPH, Utah — Dale Lamborn, the superintendent of a somewhat threadbare rural school district, feels the pain of Utah’s economic crisis every day as he tinkers with his shrinking budget, struggling to avoid laying off teachers or cutting classes like welding or calculus.
Hugo Herrera in the Rich School District in Utah, a state struggling with school spending cuts.
Just across the border in Wyoming, a state awash in oil and gas money, James Bailey runs a wealthier district. It has a new elementary school and gives every child an Apple laptop.
But under the Obama administration’s education stimulus package, Mr. Lamborn, who needs every penny he can get, will receive hundreds of dollars less per student than will Dr. Bailey, who says he does not need the extra money.
“For us, this is just a windfall,” Dr. Bailey said.
In pouring rivers of cash into states and school districts, Washington is using a tangle of well-worn federal formulas, some of which benefit states that spend more per pupil, while others help states with large concentrations of poor students or simply channel money based on population. Combined, the formulas seem to take little account of who needs the money most.
As a result, some districts that are well off will find themselves swimming in cash, while some that are struggling may get too little to avoid cutbacks.
Still, educators are accepting the disparities without challenge. Utah, which stands to get about $400 less per student than Wyoming, says it is grateful for the money and has no complaint. There is widespread recognition that the federal money is helping to avert what could have been an educational disaster in some places.
Democrats in Congress decided to use the formulas to save time, knowing that devising new ones tailored to current conditions could require months of negotiations.
“These formulas were the best vehicle for getting these emergency economic recovery funds out to school districts as quickly as possible, to help them immediately stave off layoffs,” said Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, who is chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.
The education secretary, Arne Duncan, said that he, too, was aware of the disparities but that no formula was perfect. “In this case, people are just extraordinarily thankful for these unprecedented resources,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview. “So I’m aware of these disparities, but we’ve received zero complaints.”
Still, the occasional mismatch between educational needs and emergency financing can be striking.
Utah, where a $1.3 billion budget deficit has threatened deep school cuts, will get about $655 million in education stimulus money, or about $1,250 per student, according to the federal Department of Education. Wyoming, which has no deficit and has not cut school budgets in many years, will get about $1,684 per student.
North Dakota, which also has no budget problems, will receive $1,734 per student. California, which recently closed a $42 billion budget gap through July 2010 partly through deep spending cuts, will get $1,336 per student.
New York is a huge winner. With the nation’s second-largest budget deficit, the state benefits from a formula that sends extra money to concentrations of poor students, as well as one that rewards states for their own school spending. New York will receive about $1,724 per student, the most of any large state and roughly $400 more per pupil that than Connecticut and New Jersey.
The money in question is part of $97 billion to be administered by the Education Department under the stimulus law.
Within weeks, states will begin receiving a large part of the roughly $80 billion to be distributed over two years. Most of the rest of the $97 billion will go toward college grants to low-income students.
About $50 billion, which Congress labeled a fiscal stabilization fund, will flow to states based on a formula that takes into account population, as well as the number of 5- to 24-year-olds. The states have some discretion, but part of the money must go toward avoiding or reversing cuts.
About $25 billion will be sent to the nation’s 14,000 school districts for spending on poor and disabled students according to long-standing formulas. And Mr. Duncan will use $5 billion to reward states for exemplary systems.
In Wyoming, where fourth graders in Uinta County District 1 have laptops, times are not so tough.
Dale Lamborn, superintendent of the Rich School District, may have to cut teaching jobs.
Last month Mr. Duncan released state-by-state allocations of the education stimulus money. They were divided by Department of Education enrollment numbers to calculate the money on a per-student basis.
Washington, which is treated as a state under the stimulus, will get the highest allocation, $2,112 per student. Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor there, said spending could be tricky.
“We don’t want to be in a position of bringing in this huge amount of money and then having to lay people off in two years after the money runs out,” Ms. Rhee said.
In Maryland, Prince George’s County, which borders Washington, appears likely to receive less than $1,500 per student. “I can tell you we’re not complaining,” said John White, a spokesman for the county schools. His district had been planning to cut 1,000 of its 17,000 employees and to furlough others to save money, he said, but the federal money will reduce the layoffs and make the furlough unnecessary.
Things are also working out better for Mr. Lamborn, whose district is in Rich County in northeastern Utah, where 450 children of coal miners and ranchers attend four austere rural schools. The Utah Legislature, facing a deficit of more than $1 billion, was preparing to cut school spending statewide by 17 percent. Last week, it reduced that cut to 5 percent.
Mr. Lamborn said a 17 percent cut in his district, where the starting pay for a teacher is $32,000, would have been devastating. “I didn’t even want to think about it,” he said.
Even a cut of 5 percent may result in the elimination of a teacher or two, Mr. Lamborn said. He snorted last week when he read a federal guidance letter that said, “Spend funds quickly to create and save jobs.”
“We won’t be creating any,” he said. “We hope to save some.”
Across the state line in Evanston, Wyo., where Dr. Bailey is superintendent, the Uinta County District 1 has enjoyed years of growing budgets. Students attend new or updated schools with plenty of computers; high-tech smart boards have replaced blackboards. The starting pay for a teacher is $41,500. Achievement is improving, especially in math, and a teacher training program is enriched by outside consultants.
In a meeting last week, some educators questioned whether the district could spend the $1.5 million in new federal money wisely, without losing focus on its goals, which include improving adolescent literacy skills.
“Out of the blue this money has dropped in, and it’s kind of a distraction,” Dr. Bailey said.