Monday, April 6, 2009 | As money from the federal stimulus bill trickles out to schools in San Diego County, districts are being urged to devise new and innovative reforms — a sticky prospect for schools that have been squarely focused on the dismal business of simply staying intact.
Such dollars are “a huge opportunity,” said David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research group. “But the devil’s bargain was that it could only happen at a time when schools were under such duress that their enthusiasm for innovation — however intense it was to begin with — is greatly reduced.”
San Diego County schools are anxiously awaiting a flood of federal stimulus money to soften the budget cuts that have imperiled programs and sent layoff warnings to hundreds of teachers. But the money is not supposed to be a mere bailout for schools, nor is it large enough to prevent all the planned cuts. Some of the dollars are marked for specific purposes. Some could be held up by the state.
And others will hinge on innovation. Doing something new and exciting now — and showing that it works — could give school districts an advantage next fall, when they can compete for grants for groundbreaking reforms. But taking on new programs and initiatives could be tough for schools to stomach that are slashing other programs and staff to battle deep cuts.
San Diego Unified, which is juggling a $147 million shortfall, is beginning to hash out ideas with professors, parents and school principals about how to innovate with the dollars. It expects to get $37 million for disadvantaged students, $28.7 million for special education, and $1 million for technology — plus whatever the state hands down from stimulus money meant to firm up budgets. Making a splash with those funds could put San Diego Unified in the catbird seat when the federal government asks school districts to compete for $650 million in innovation grants next fall.
“If we use our money wisely and we do something that is innovative and makes a difference for kids, it will give us a step up,” said Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris, who said the school board would likely start discussing its plans in the next two or three weeks. “But whatever we do, we have to make sure it’s sustainable.”