whitehouse.govPresident Barack Obama speaks about saving teachers' jobs Aug. 6 in Washington, D.C.
Many unknowns stand in the way of California school districts actually being able to spend money from the $26 billion state relief fund signed into law by President Obama this week.
The president declared that, among other things, the fund "will keep at least 160,000 teachers in the classroom this fall who would otherwise be out of a job."
Of the $26 billion, California will get at least $1.2 billion for its schools. But it is impossible to visualize how many districts will be able to rehire teachers, draw up staffing patterns and assign kids to respective classrooms by opening day. Some schools on year-round schedules are already in session. Others like those on traditional schedules at Natomas Unified near Sacramento already started classes on August 10. Some districts like San Francisco and Fresno will open their doors on August 16 – next Monday. West Contra Costa Unified will open on August 24. Long Beach Unified will open on September 8. Los Angeles Unified, which opens on September 13, may be in the best shape with a relatively late opening day of September 13.
On top of that, the Legislature is still gridlocked on coming up with a budget for the current fiscal year. Before federal funds can be sent to schools, Department of Finance officials tell me, the Legislature has to either have approved a budget, or pass special legislation authorizing expenditure of the funds.
The actual timeline outlined in the law seems to conflict with the compressed timeline school districts face. The state has up to 30 days to apply from enactment, and the federal government then has up to 15 days to distribute the funds. Once money flows to the districts, local school boards have to ratify whatever decisions are made on how the funds will be spent.
"The clock is ticking," said Maria Lopez, spokesperson for the California Department of Education. "We are very aware that the word needs to get out to the school districts as soon as possible."
That awareness extends to the U.S. Department of Education as well, which has pledged to accelerate the entire process. The department's website outlined the following scenario:
In order to ensure that states receive funding as quickly as possible, the department will streamline the application process so that states can submit applications within days. The department will award funding to states within two weeks of their submission of an approvable application.
The Department of Finance says districts will get funds based on the same formula that was used to allocate funds through the original stimulus allocation, the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund.
But there are still uncertainties. "Right now, we don't know what districts can expect to receive," the Department of Education's Lopez said. But she anticipates the state will get clarification on all of these issues soon "so districts can act with more assurance."
Lopez tried to downplay the obstacles. "The good news is that we have hope of getting the money, and we have a nice amount coming to California."
That echoed the sentiments coming from Long Beach, which has been forced to lay off teachers for the first time in years. "The jobs bill brings a much needed infusion of funding that will help us to maintain services for students," said spokesperson Chris Eftychiou. "Once we have a better idea of how much funding we'll receive, we can decide more precisely how to use the funds."
For all this to work, officials will have to move far more rapidly than they typically do all along the bureaucratic chain, from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., then back to Sacramento, and to local schools. One thing that won't and can't be delayed: Millions of California children will be showing up for school in the next few days and weeks, regardless of what anyone does or doesn't do.