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The Smart Guide to Stimulus Spending

ARRA dos and don'ts, avoiding the funding cliff, meeting the new law's guidelines before they're even written, and more.

August 2009

Nearly $100,000,000,000. that’s the breathtaking sum that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is giving to schools. But—of course—there is a catch. Here’s how the law states it: “ARRA represents a historic infusion of funds that is expected to be temporary. These funds should be invested in ways that do not result in unsustainable continuing commitments after the funding expires.” In other words: Beware the funding cliff.

Because ARRA is intended in part to feed a languishing economy, stimulus dollars are meant to be consumed quickly, not savored. Think of it as a trip to a well—but you only get one bucketful of water. As school leaders chew on the unfamiliar problem of too much rather than too little cash, their major challenge is how to rapidly spend billions in ways that promote a district’s long-term success without violating state and federal regulations.

“Build capacity,” says Deborah Davis, unit director for the Center for School and District Improvement of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL). Now, she cautions, is not the time to start thinking up new pet programs.

“Given the inevitable funding cliff, it’s critical districts add value to programs and resources already in place,” Davis says. If you’re not sure what’s working in your district and what isn’t, find out. Davis notes that funding a review process to identify a district’s existing strengths and potential problems could be a smart use of ARRA money. Districts could target their workforce to make existing staff better at their jobs. “Districts may also opt to engage in professional development to implement research-based practices or learn strategies for teaching with technology,” she adds.

Others in the trenches echo Davis’s cautious advice. “Essentially, everything we do has a funding cliff, whether it’s short-term or long-term,” says Paul Kelly, assistant superintendent for business and technology for Missouri’s Park Hill School District. “It’s important for us not to worsen it.” Kelly’s district is walking a balance beam by trying as much as possible to follow its existing strategic plan without running afoul of ARRA regulations. Items up for funding consideration include data-collection tools, professional-development initiatives, and Response to Intervention (RTI) staff. The Park Hill district is also considering capital investments in educational technology like whiteboards, mobile devices, and document cameras. “We have these tools in some of our schools,” says Kelly, “but ARRA will allow us to standardize technology in all of our 15 schools.”

“Human resource driven” is how superintendent Bobbi Johnson describes the budget priorities in her Virginia district. Culpeper County Public Schools is expanding coach-level roles in Title I schools, adding a position to its RTI program, and increasing staff support for post–high school transition programs for special-education students. “We’re trying to add to successful programs that are already in place,” Johnson explains. “It may mean painful decisions down the road. But we’re hoping that in two to three years, we will be able to continue to fund these positions and programs.”

NWREL’s Davis says that it’s still too early to tell how successfully school districts will ultimately use ARRA funds. No matter how farsighted administrators are today or how wisely they spend, most will be facing significantly tighter budgets in the near future. Nevertheless, Davis is optimistic about the stimulus: “ARRA does allow school districts an opportunity to expand existing programs, fund high-quality professional development, and investigate ways to better serve students.”


Call it stimulus phase 3. first, educators were amazed at the size of the ARRA package. Next, they were engrossed in determining the best ways to spend the money. Now, with most plans set, the focus is turning to meeting financial reporting requirements.

But there’s one small problem: No one knows exactly what those requirements will be. Considering the unprecedented scale of ARRA as well as the Obama administration’s mantra of transparency, it’s a safe bet that the requirements will be extensive.
While it’s common to speak of the stimulus, there is no single pot of ARRA money. Instead, the funds are divided among an alphabet soup of programs, such as SFSF, IDEA, Title I, and EETT, each of which has its own spending guidelines and, presumably, its own accountability standards.

But despite the general uncertainty, many jurisdictions are trying to get ahead of the reporting requirements now. California recently launched a website dedicated to tracking the state’s use of ARRA money, while Texas and Oregon are two states that are requiring school districts to post spending online. “We will help with transparency,” says Jerel Booker, associate commissioner at the Texas Education Agency (TEA). “We want that to be clear.”

Districts used to big budgets and demanding constituencies should not be too fazed by any new federal requirements. “I would say that it’s an awareness,” says Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). He says that tracking is second nature to anyone used to accepting federal money. “I think you will find most people welcome guidelines prior to receiving money.” Knezek admits that, even with his connections, he’s not aware of any tracking specifics to date, although “everyone expects them to be very rigorous.”

TEA’s Booker says that his state is taking steps to put all school districts on the same page and help them down the line. Texas built its application for ARRA funds on a template that will help districts with their accountability reporting. Texas will also require quarterly reports, again in a template that breaks down general metrics, such as jobs saved and created. “And then we’ve added a catch-all section,” Booker says, “because we know the DOE is still working on this and there may be additional metrics coming down the pike.”

Booker says the IT gurus at TEA are working with the state financial database system to build in the requirements. “Everybody has made a big fuss because there is a great audit concern, and we have to make sure they understand the magnitude of these grant funds,” Booker explains. In other words, it’s more of a behavioral change ahead than a technical one. State executives are preparing specialized training for the districts to promote these changes.

While many districts know the drill that goes with federal funding, not every state may be on equal footing. ISTE’s Knezek thinks that less-experienced rural school districts could be at a disadvantage. But while these reporting rules could dampen enthusiasm for ARRA, Knezek encourages districts to see these funds as a way to change the educational landscape. “If we get the same results and merely report them better, that will be a waste of money,” he notes.

Ask Permission or Ask Forgiveness
Sound spending advice from AASA Associate Executive Director Bruce Hunter
When it comes to spending federal stimulus dollars, Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, says the choice is simple. He recently spoke with Administrator about how school leaders should handle ARRA.

Q: New information and clarifications on ARRA seem to be coming out every week. What is the latest update, and how can districts keep up with all the changes?

A: The ground is shifting. The secretary of education just completed a conference call [in July] with superintendents around the country. A day later, the U.S. Department of Education came out with new guidance on IDEA, and then new guidance on Title I. As they get questions and see what’s happening out there, they’re reacting to it. I’ve never seen an administration do this.

Q: Do you have any idea why there are so many changes?
A: The legislative process usually takes so long that all of these questions get worked out. That process was truncated, and so the questions are coming later. But you’ve got to hand it to the administration. They are being very flexible and mobile and trying to shift what they say as questions come up. They’re working hard in order to help people use this money successfully.
For example, the DOE just an-nounced that it would be easier to get waivers on extending the time when you can use these dollars. There’s a federal law that when you get federal money like Title I and IDEA, you have 27 months from the day you receive it to have all of those dollars obligated. Now they’re going to be doing one-year waivers for people who can demonstrate that that’s necessary. People need to think about this, because it’s not quite such short-term money.

Q: How would you recommend administrators stay on top oF the changes?
A: You really have to have somebody watching the DOE website, because they’re posting stuff regularly. And when they post it, districts need to read it carefully. If they have questions, they should start with their state department of education, asking how they’re interpreting it. And if they get an interpretation that doesn’t make sense to them, they need to go straight to the senior staff at the DOE. Carmel Martin, who’s the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation, seems to be the point person for this. People need to look up her e-mail [] or phone number [202-401-0831] and fire their questions right into her office. So far, she’s done a very good job of making sure people get answers.

Q: How are districts looking to spend their stimulus dollars? What are their priorities and challenges?
A: Everybody wants to spend money on professional development. That’s the uniform item. Next, I hear about hardware, software, and technology materials.
Then, I hear about people trying to retain as many staff as they can. But here, everybody feels the rigidity of the rules in IDEA and Title I in terms of staffing. The guidance from DOE says—my reading of it is—that if you’ve had to cut a program that would benefit low-income kids or kids with disabilities, you can retain those teachers who were previously paid with local dollars and pay them with IDEA or Title I dollars as long as those dollars last. People are very reluctant to do that, because in the past that’s been called supplanting. But the department is saying, “We’re going to call that supplementing.”

Q: What are the Obama administration’s goals for ARRA and schools?
A: There are four goals for the stimulus. The first is to improve teaching and to improve the teacher corps. Second is to improve standards and assessments. The third thing is to focus on improving the very lowest-performing schools, and I think they’re particularly thinking about high schools. And the last thing they say they want is to help promote really robust data systems statewide to track children preK­–12.

All of those goals have wide acceptance. But there’s a question whether you can do all of that if the money comes to you in very narrow lanes like Title I and IDEA and if state legislatures and governors play games with the state stimulus funds so that it’s really not a net gain at all. That’s an issue. Nearly everywhere, there’s a feeling among superintendents that dollars are being shuffled to other purposes, not to education.

Q: What can districts do about their legislators?
A: I’ve heard that a number have complained to the secretary of education. But the secretary, when you look at the statute, really doesn’t have any authority over the governors or state legislatures to change their decisions. But all the money isn’t going out at once; it’s coming out in two parts. And the Department of Education has been pretty open about saying that the second part of the money might be contingent on the states demonstrating that, in fact, the money is going where they said it was going to go.

Q: Have you been hearing about other concerns?
A: The biggest gripe so far is that they didn’t actually get the money until right now. Even though the dollars were appropriated in February, districts haven’t gotten spending authority until [July]. In fact, some of them still don’t have spending authority. They’ve been told how much they’ll have, but they haven’t been told they have the authority to start spending it.

Q: Why has it taken so long to get spending authority?
A: There was a lot of discussion of how to do it, and people didn’t really know. And then, for the states, there’s a continuum of their fiscal troubles. At the low end there’s California, and at the high end Wyoming, where there’s almost no trouble at all. But there are states in between, like Texas, that have huge rainy-day funds, that are still not using that money, or they’re playing shell games with their money. And that just doesn’t make sense.

Q: In terms of dos and don’ts, what is your best advice for district leaders?
A: On the plus side, they have opportunities for staff development and equipment and technology purchases that they’ve never had. And they ought to go ahead and do it.
On the downside, where things are unsure, there are two philosophies: One is to ask permission and the other is to ask forgiveness. And there are benefits to going either way. If you ask permission, nobody ever comes back to you and says, “Well, you did this wrong.” But if you’re asking forgiveness, sometimes you are able to make things right and do some things that otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to do for kids. Even if they come back later and slap your hands, you’re being slapped on the hands for spending the money wisely on children. That isn’t going to get you into much trouble at home.

Get ARRA Help Online
16 websites to help you navigate the spending maze.

The U.S. Department of Education
The definitive ARRA resource for education, this site provides news and multimedia presentations about the recovery act. It also has authoritative guides to each of the education programs included in ARRA that can be downloaded in Word or as a PDF.

Highlight: While not the easiest site to navigate, is rich with ARRA resources, including a summary of objectives and specific funding categories.

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Offering both its own analysis as well as links to U.S. Department of Education publications, the easily navigated ASCD website is an excellent place to begin ARRA research.
highlight: ASCD’s interactive map of state-by-state funding makes this website the most visually compelling ARRA resource by far.

State Educational Technology Directors Association
This one-of-a-kind site offers a much-needed evaluation and summary of the way your colleagues in other states are making use of stimulus money, with a focus on technology. Each case study offers an overview of components and a summary of practice.

Highlight: A comprehensive white paper that makes a case for technology utilizing evidence from schools and districts across the country can be found at .

The International Society for Technology in Education
This blog-like forum lies somewhere between playground and think tank, providing an interactive setting for administrators to compare notes and weigh in on best ARRA strategies. highlight: ISTE proffers all kinds of diversions, from Flickr photos to social-networking profiles and video.

American Library Association
ALA’s Know Your Stimulus offers a multitude of informational links. Under Advocacy, administrators can access and download talking points to vie for future library funding.

Highlight: A breakdown of programs through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) demonstrates exactly where specific funds are allocated—and how libraries might benefit.

Afterschool Alliance
The Afterschool Alliance offers a comprehensive list of opportunities for after-school funding as well as helpful testimonials and success stories. 

Highlight: The Roadmap to Afterschool for All—an assessment of the investment in after-school programs from the public sector, parents, foundations, and businesses—includes key findings, presentations, and news releases.

Council for Exceptional Children
To help unpack new IDEA funding made available under ARRA, CEC has created resources including a Q&A, a PowerPoint presentation, and suggestions for how to invest ARRA funds wisely. The site also contains links to CEC-selected resources from the DOE and the White House.

Highlight: The Q&A is as comprehensive as anything you will find online.


National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities
NCEF could well be the most up-to-date, comprehensive collection of construction-related ARRA news. Of perhaps even greater value are the many links and tips the site has gathered on how to make your school both energy-smart and fiscally sound.

Highlight: A stimulus-funding and tax-credit-bonds chart listing agencies and eligibility requirements is available for immediate download.


National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center

NECTAC presents an excellent array of early childhood ARRA resources, including analyses and recommendations from nonfederal organizations.
Highlight: Much of the information on the NECTAC links pages can be downloaded as PDFs, so you don’t have to navigate site after site to get the information you need.


Apple emphasizes digital learning and media literacy in the classroom and offers an education discount with every school purchase. Rather than scroll the fine print, it may be easiest to call Apple and speak with a representative for your specific needs.

Highlight: Apple offers free financial advice to help schools make the most of technology budgets. Call 1-800-APPLE-LN, or visit to learn more. 

CDW-G: The 21st Century Classroom
At first glance, CDW-G’s e-commerce site doesn’t look so different from your average office and supply purchasing experience; however, in this virtual classroom site, there are quick and easy ways to view all products and assess your own classrooms.

Highlight: The easy shopping cart allows a comprehensive scroll-through for every classroom product.

Curriculum Associates
This site features a Stimulus Support Grid for IDEA and Title I, allowing a quick and colorful comparison of how diverse funding needs are met by products in certain funding categories.

Highlight: In addition to national grids, find custom grids for California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia.

Education Week
Follow the stimulus money! EdWeek offers a dynamic state-by-state map, plus a news archive, chats, webinars, and blogs for a truly rich media experience. Content is available by subscription only.
highlight: Watch fellow administrators and hear what they’re saying through EdWeek’s homepage videos.

Kaplan K­–12 Learning Services
In this national initiative, Kaplan promises to “measurably propel student achievement” with instruction for students and professional development for teachers—transforming entire school systems. A clear and simple funding chart, clickable at the top of the website’s main page, shows you exactly where you might invest.

highlight: You get a free administrator toolkit with your registration, including evidence that demonstrates the significance of grades six and nine; key metrics that all administrators need to know; sample district case studies; and even a consultation to help you plan for back-to-school.

Learning Point Associates
Learning Point Associates advises on best practices and offers hands-on training to educational leaders and staff. The group’s expertise falls under four brackets: literacy, after-school, school/district improvement, and educator development and retention.

Highlight: The site has information and links to everything ARRA, including state, federal, and local resources; an ARRA “digest” provided by Learning Point; plus a search mechanism to find funding opportunities near you.

If you’re looking to spend ARRA dollars to improve technology and literacy in your district, offers all kinds of learning products, including READ 180, the acclaimed literacy intervention program eligible for Title I, IDEA, and RTI and EETT funding. Also check out , with a full range of resources for integrating whiteboard tech into your classrooms—early childhood or K–12.

Highlight: The economic-recovery site provides a valuable guide to help you address the most important decisions, find funding, develop solutions, and measure success.                 

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