Stimulus money a mixed blessing

For all its faults, the $787 billion federal stimulus package is keeping many public schoolteachers off the unemployment rolls, including 400 in Wichita. It's also directing dollars toward effective educational reforms, through the Obama administration's $4 billion "Race to the Top" grant program.

"We want to reward those states, those districts, those nonprofits that are willing to challenge the status quo and get dramatically better, close the achievement gap and raise the bar for everybody," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said recently on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"This is a huge step for this president to take," said Republican and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the same show, praising the "Race to the Top" focus on accountability, transparency and charter school access. "Education is the No. 1 factor in our future prosperity. It's the No. 1 factor in national security, and it's the No. 1 factor in these young people having a decent future. I agree with Al Sharpton" — another partner in the uniquely bipartisan initiative —"this is the No. 1 civil right of the 21st century," Gingrich said.

But the stimulus education money has been a mixed blessing in states including Kansas, which has received $242 million so far and will apply for $121 million more this month.

The cash comes with many strings, limiting districts' ability to use it. States such as Kansas that are relying heavily on stimulus dollars to plug education budget holes rather than seed innovation will be at a disadvantage in applying for "Race to the Top" dollars.

Some of the "Race to the Top" requirements and priorities don't mesh with state law — in Kansas' case, relating to charter schools and tying teacher reviews to student performance. And because of its own administrative budget cuts, the Kansas State Department of Education is finding it daunting to deal with the "Race to the Top" guidelines, application and deadline.

Stimulus money also puts state legislators in a bind: If they want to help craft a 2011 state budget by further cutting education below 2006 levels, where Gov. Mark Parkinson left them in last week's 2010 budget allotments, they would jeopardize Kansas' eligibility for stimulus education dollars. The same situation applies to higher education, where stimulus dollars have prevented layoffs and even higher tuition hikes. That means more cuts for the rest of the budget — or more revenue sources.

And when the stimulus money runs out in two years, it will leave behind more budget chasms for all, unless the economy has had a miraculous recovery.

Still, the stimulus money already is working as intended in Kansas schools, helping them get through this downturn with as few classroom interruptions as possible. One-time money or not, Kansas schools shouldn't be shy now about doing whatever it takes to win more stimulus cash — especially because the new thinking and learning it stimulates would be lasting.