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Transparency Watch: Evaluating Stimulus Reporting

The U.S. Department of Education released its own report today further breaking down the jobs data from the economic-stimulus package. The White House then hosted a conference call with Education Secretary Arne Duncan to further trumpet the estimated 640,239 jobs that have been saved, 325,000 of which were education jobs.

What's telling is that in the Department's own report, they relied on media reports and accounts from the Council of the Great City Schools to illustrate examples of how federal stimulus money is being spent. And that's because, despite the Obama administration's efforts to make economic-stimulus spending as transparent as possible, the first quarterly stimulus reports filed by states and other stimulus recipients don't go into very much detail about how the money was actually spent.

Part of the problem is a one-size-fits-all approach to reporting, and a need to make sure the reporting isn't overly burdensome. States and recipients fill in the same blanks on a form whether they're reporting on road projects, or school spending. So the level of specificity varies widely in these first reports.

For example, on the vague end of the spectrum is Alaska. The state reported that 91 jobs have been created so far from the education portion of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund. They describe those jobs as "teaching and support staff." On the more specific end is Delaware, which reported 205 jobs saved or created, broken down as follows: 7 administrative, 4 guidance, 4 secretaries, 29 paraprofessionals, 3 substitutes, 2 technical support, 1 nurse and 155 teachers.

One additional flaw of the data is we don't know if these are new hires, jobs that were saved, or a combination of both (and if so, then what the mixture is). Also, some of this information can only be gleaned by wading through highly technical Excel spreadsheets from the Recovery.gov "download center." Much of the reporting consisted of filling in blanks with various codes and ID numbers.

Also, it's important to note that when you hear about "education" jobs, they aren't necessarily K-12 teachers. California, for example, reported that education stimulus funds saved about 62,000 education jobs in the state. The State Fiscal Stabilization Fund paid for 53,390.5 of those education-related jobs. But of those SFSF jobs, only about 18,000 are for K-12 education, the state reported, with the rest for higher education.

What's more, what's good news now may be bad news later. If roughly 325,000 education jobs have been saved by stimulus money, what happens when that funding goes away? Will roughly 300,000 education jobs be in danger of being cut? I asked Duncan that during a media call today, and he refused to be Dr. Doom.

"I don't think this is a prediction of where we are going to be," he said. "We simply don't know where we're going to be."

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