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That the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which was signed into law in February, will pump nearly $100 billion--an unprecedented sum of federal money--into K-12 education is not in doubt. Nor is the legislation's potential to play a uniquely influential role in the affairs of districts and schools. What is at issue is the substance of that role.
Since congressional deliberations began, much of the commentary about the ARRA has suggested that it will contribute mightily to the ongoing efforts to improve America's schools. The New York Times reported on Democratic congressional leaders' vigorous efforts to craft the law in a way that would ensure that the funding would be used for reform. Since its passage, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said many times that ARRA education funds must drive improvement. Significant media and education industry attention has been paid to the law's "Race to the Top" and "What Works" funds, billions of dollars designed to launch new initiatives and scale up those already working.
For these reasons, the law's education components have been depicted as potentially among the most important engines for education reform in generations. This special report approaches these claims with a critical eye and ultimately concludes otherwise. Though some congressional leaders may have thought they were writing a blueprint for reform, what resulted was quite different. And while Secretary Duncan, to his credit, has spoken passionately and often about the need for improvement, the tools he was handed were cracked and dull.
In short, at this point the enthusiastic predictions about the ARRA's contributions to K-12 education reform should be approached with skepticism. The law's provisions and their interpretation by the Department of Education erect significant barriers to reform. Moreover, additional conditions on the ground make those obstacles even higher. At this early date, it appears that we must adjust our expectations about the ARRA's ability to generate the types of improvements our schools so urgently need.