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Transparency Watch: Dead Ends Along the Money Trail

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Schools and the Stimulus

There are grand promises from the Obama administration that the $787 billion in stimulus funding will be spent with "unprecedented levels of transparency." And in a recent edweek.org interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, I asked him whether a parent would be able to follow the money all the way from the federal government down to the school level. He said:

There's never been such transparency. Recovery.gov is the Web site.We'll be tracking state-by-state and district-by-district how money is being spent.

Well, now that some $44 billion is starting to flow out of the ed department's doors, it's time to start putting this "unprecedented" transparency to the test.

During Duncan's visit to the Bruce Randolph School in Denver yesterday, the principal announced the school had already received about $200,000 in stimulus money, and must decide how to spend it by Friday.

So I decided to follow the money—backward. Since everything seems to hinge on these recovery Web sites, I started at Colorado's official recovery Web site. Besides a general chart listing education as one category for stimulus funds, I could find no mention of any education funding coming into the state under the Web site's categories of "news", "accountability board", "jobs and projects", "helping people", "resources", and "contact." For good measure, I made sure the Colorado Department of Education didn't have any specific information (they didn't).

Hitting a roadblock, I turned to the U.S. Department of Education's recovery web portal to see if I could find traces of money flowing to Colorado. Buried under "agency reports" are weekly reports in Excel spreadsheet format that detail money flowing out the door. (Are Excel spreadsheets really the best way to be transparent to the general public, many of whom may not have experience with this format?) The latest information from April 7 indicates that the department has spent $11 billion so far—but the information is in broad categories such as special education, Title I, or student financial assistance, with no state-by-state information.

The federal government's main stimulus Web portal, recovery.gov, has an "accountability and transparency" section containing links to the members of the new federal accountability board, and to reports by inspectors general. Nothing on the flow of money. A separate section on "agency progress and resources" contains the same weekly reports on agency websites, and links back to the agency's recovery Web sites. Still, no trace of money flowing to Colorado.

So far, all levels of government are failing the transparency test because, besides a mention in a news story, there's no evidence that money has made its way to Colorado school districts. So far, this unprecedented transparency involves some nice-looking Web sites with spreadsheets showing large chunks of money going out the door. That's not exactly living up to Duncan and Obama's promises. To be sure, it's early. Money has only recently started flowing. But an early test of the transparency claim shows there's a long way to go.

2 Comments

When I did substitute teaching for several years, I noticed a lot of unused and broken computers, and software that was out of date. I could not find out how districts managed their inventories, and with the new talk of funding for education, I developed the idea of a reusable district-wide database and reporting system for tracking computers.

As the owner of a sole proprietorship that does computer consulting, I looked into fedbizopps.gov. Problem: same old same old. The contract had about 100 pages of outdated and unnecessary codes and rules. It seems as if two small additions had been shoved in, relating to whistleblowing if the benefactor of the contract saw something that was not proper in relation to 2009 economic stimulus funds. In other words, the stimulus package just added on to the old rigmarole.

I did my best to submit an application with their unclear cover sheet, which looked like a federal tax form. I did not know which ones of the many codes to address in my proposal, and which to leave out.

As far as I am concerned, it's business as usual. For those who are already entrenched in the system--for example, professionals who spend their time reading through and responding to mounds of government contract legalize--things are the same. For those of us with fresh new ideas, things are also the same, as our hopes for helping the system vaporize in front of the old brick wall of regulations.

Can some of this federal stimulus money be used in ways that don't rely on old bureaucratic structures? Then, maybe we can really start improving education.

- Ellen Faden
Web 2.0 Consultant

I am totally against any of the spending by congress thus far- from EITHER administration. One of my main concerns was just what you said: how is the money going to be tracked?

The tracking before stunk. The tracking now stinks. More money will make it better?

I hope, at least in this instance, they start to get it right. If the money is going to be spent, let us know WHERE it goes.

But what are we to do next year when the same problem is here? More stimulus? The cycle needs to be busted and alternate ways of funding found.

Love the blog, by the way. I am by no means pro-union anything, but I can appreciate it when things are done for my kids. You provide a good viewpoint for me to ponder before making any judgment pro or con.

Sean~

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