Stimulus package gives state a golden opportunity

The federal stimulus package gives schools across the nation an unprecedented opportunity to make purchases, offer programs and provide services that they may have been delaying because of tight budgets over the last few years. The key to maximizing the resources is to think strategically about how we can use those resources that will benefit Mississippi’s children the most and have the most lasting impact. We know that we will not likely get such an opportunity again, so we are committed to ensuring that we receive the greatest return on the investment.
While complete guidance from the federal government has not been provided to the states, a meeting held last week at the White House helped to clarify some issues. The resources will be divided into three areas: Title I dollars, Special Education dollars and Budget Stabilization Funds. Title I dollars must be directed to programs and services for children from low-income families. Special Education dollars must be used to purchase equipment and provide programs and services for students with special needs.
There are already many guidelines in place for the use of these dollars and we believe the stimulus funds will follow these rules.
However, we are still waiting on final guidance from the U.S. Department of Education. The Budget Stabilization Funds must first be used to restore cuts made to education, from pre-kindergarten through university, to formulas that ensure equity in education funding. In Mississippi, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program is the funding formula that was designed by the Legislature to provide adequate and equitable funding for all Mississippi schools. There are also funds available for improving data systems, teacher quality, workforce readiness and accessibility. We will know more about how we can use these dollars when we receive final guidance from USDE.
We will receive these funds in three waves over the next two years. We should even receive the first wave as early as the end of March. We hav a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a difference that can last a lifetime for our children. If we can use these resources to focus o reading, we can improve student achievement dramatically and for many years to come.
Reading is the foundation for all learning. First, students learn to read, then, they read to learn everything else. We know that students who cannot read on grade level by the end of the third grade are exponentially more likely to drop out of school.
Conversely, if we can ensure that every child can read by the end of the third grade, we can improve our graduation rate dramatically.
Among the many lessons learned from the experiences of Hurricane Katrina is the lesson we learned that the State Department of Education and school districts must be very careful to track dollars spent and stay within federal guidelines, which have not be released yet. We have already set up weekly meetings with the Governor’s Office and the Department of Finance and Administration to ensure that we are keeping the lines of communication open and sharing what we are all learning from our respective contacts in D.C.
While we must be careful stewards of these resources, we must also be creative in how we use them. This gives us an opportunity to offer excellent training for teachers and administrators. We know that time on task is incredibly important, particularly for students that are struggling. We can use these resources to extend the school day or the school year and offer Saturday school to students that need the extra attention.
Two years is a brief window of opportunity, but it is a golden opportunity that we may never see again. We must do everything in our power to ensure that this opportunity makes a profound difference in the lives of our students and gives them greater opportunities in the future.

Alisha Wilson

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