Stimulus saved special ed jobs in Minn., for nowby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — When Margaret Sullivan heard that the federal stimulus program would include more money for special education funding, she hoped it would make the program even better at her son Derek's school.
Derek Parshall attends Ramsey Fine Arts school in Minneapolis, where he's part of the autism program. The program lets Derek be what's called "main-streamed" - meaning he takes most of his classes with his fellow 6th graders. He's learning the violin and piano, but one of his biggest challenges is his sensitive hearing.
Sounds like fire alarms, bells, or the soundtrack at a movie theater are all painful for Parshall.
"If sounds are too loud, it hurts my ears and I have to cover my ears," said Parshall.
Sullivan, says she hoped the federal money could be used to hire more special education teachers or assistants at Parshall's school, but instead most of the money has been used to stop teachers from being laid off.
Sullivan says she understands the problem but she wishes more could have been done.
"Things have maybe improved slightly, but I don't know that you're going to see some rip-rousing effect," Sullivan said.
The federal stimulus bill that took effect one year ago today includes more than $200 million dollars for special education in Minnesota schools.
Such a large pot of money raised hopes from some people that special ed might see a truly renewed investment.
But with district budgets already so tight, stimulus money has been largely used to maintain what was already there. And there's a bigger issue: What happens when the money dries up next year?
Saving jobs that would have otherwise been lost is a goal of the federal stimulus. Vice President Joe Biden spoke at an event this morning, where he argued the money invested in both private and public-sector initiatives has saved as many as 2 million jobs nationwide.
But Nancy Reder, with the National Association of State Special Education Directors, says there were other goals of the stimulus that have always seemed in conflict.
"Save jobs, spend the money quickly and do something creative are not necessarily consistent with one another," said Reder. "It's hard to do all those three things at the same time."
In Minnesota, district leaders say their goal has been to use stimulus money to keep what they have or make one-time purchases - like technology upgrades.
State figures show nearly 7,000 jobs have been created or retained in education in Minnesota, more than any other sector. But those numbers don't differentiate between created and retained jobs.
Duane Borgeson, president of the Minnesota Administrators for Special Education, says he's seen little interest in creating new positions.
"I had a colleague comment that the (stimulus) dollars are supposed to be used to fund innovative programs," Borgeson said. "But how innovative can you be when it's a one time infusion that's gone in two years?"
Parents, like Margaret Sullivan, find the lack of innovative or expanded programs disappointing.
"In the ideal world, it would have been spent in a way that outcomes for students in special education would have been improved. I don't that they've been able to do that," Sullivan said.
But the temporary nature of the stimulus speaks to a larger problem for districts that is known in education circles as "the cliff."
In an average tight budget year, there are questions about what kind of funding to expect. But the stimulus represents the potential for a sudden and large drop in funding - that's the cliff. And there no economic forecasts suggest enough there'll be any new state money to fill in that gap.
In that way, Bill Hanson, business manager for Duluth's schools, says the stimulus has only been delaying the inevitable.
"Given that it's temporary and will be going away, all of a sudden you're in a situation where you haven't adjusted your spending to the new revenue level that you have to live within," Hanson said. "So it becomes probably two years' worth of cuts at one time, in addition to the cuts you'd probably have to make anyway."
That "cliff", by the way, refers to all education funding in Minnesota, not just special education.
In total, education stimulus spending in Minnesota will top $1 billion over two years. But the stimulus is not preventing deficits. Minneapolis anticipates a $12 million budget shortfall next year, the last year of the stimulus. The shortfall jumps to $20 million the year after, once the stimulus money is gone.