Pell recipients, others win Colorado stimulus funds
DENVER, Colorado ” Brenda French-Jeffryes made about $20,000 a year as a hairstylist before enrolling at Fort Lewis College in Durango in hopes of getting a higher-paying job to support her two college students and an eighth-grader.
French-Jeffryes and her sons attend college with help from federal need-based Pell grants, so she had three reasons to cheer the federal stimulus law that raises the maximum Pell grant per award year from $4,731 to $5,350 on July 1. The amount would rise to $5,550 next year.
She said she is paying about $3,200 per semester in tuition and fees as she works toward a business degree.
“Every little bit helps,” said French-Jeffryes, 47. “I am happy to see they’re increasing it a little, especially for those of us who survive because of the Pell. I couldn’t go to school without it.”
College students in Pell and federal work-study programs are some of the clear winners from the sprawling stimulus bill. But Colorado’s 178 school districts and its roughly two dozen higher-learning institutions could benefit too.
The U.S. Department of Education estimates Colorado could receive close to $1 billion in stimulus funding for education, including money to repair schools and help underserved public school children.
State officials are waiting for guidance from the federal government before determining how much will go to K-12 school districts and how much will go to higher education. Some funds are expected to arrive this month.
“This really presents a unique opportunity to make a major investment in the future of education in Colorado,” said Rich Wenning, associate commissioner for the Colorado Department of Education.
The largest chunk of money for schools will come from a fund intended to stabilize state budgets. Colorado is due to get an estimated $760 million in state fiscal stabilization funds, of which about $620 million would be earmarked for education, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The idea is to restore funding through fiscal 2011 at fiscal 2008 or 2009 levels, which means that money could go to teacher salaries and avert layoffs.
Yet because some stimulus dollars are for specific uses, the extra money won’t automatically wipe out budget cuts.
Pueblo District 60, for one, faces about $7.5 million in possible cuts from a roughly $200 million budget for the 2009-2010 school year, spokesman Greg Sinn said. State education officials expect the district to get extra Title I funds, but it’s too early to say how stimulus money might help the overall budget.
College tuition increases are still expected this fall. “It’s a question of would it go up even further. It’s way too early to tell,” said Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, which includes 13 state community colleges.
At the University of Colorado in Boulder, in-state tuition for the 2008-09 school year is $5,922.
“It’s safe to say this will help a great deal in reducing the net effect of reductions that otherwise would be required over the next couple of years,” said David Skaggs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
Stimulus funds, in part, are supposed to help the lowest-performing schools, make sure all students have access to qualified teachers, and improve methods for measuring student performance.
Colorado schools expect to get increased grants for Title I schools with high concentrations of students in poverty, special education, education of homeless youth and education technology.
Preliminary estimates, to be adjusted by state officials, have Denver Public Schools getting the largest share in Colorado of Title I stimulus funding, at more than $30 million. District spokesman Alex Sanchez said where that money will go is still being determined.
It’s possible it could give Title I schools flexibility to add staff, and special education classes could get smaller, said Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat who served on the Colorado Board of Education before heading to Congress.
Colorado also can compete this year for grants to improve student achievement, support programs that have shown success in closing achievement gaps for underprivileged students, track student progress and provide incentives for teachers.
The challenge will be spending the one-time infusion in a way that will last.
“The goal is to dramatically improve student outcomes, including students underserved previously, and to enhance education in a way that pays dividends in the future,” said Wenning of the state education department.
Recipients of stimulus money will have to publicly report how they use the money and track results.
Wenning said education reforms passed by the Legislature last year position Colorado well for setting performance standards and collecting data.
Colorado is noted for its highly educated population. But many of its residents with higher degrees arrived from other states. While the state has a relatively high per capita income, it lags in public support for students in higher education, Skaggs said.
“If we’re going to continue growth and have economic recovery, we need to prepare students for the next generation of good jobs in the economy,” Polis said.
On the Net:
Colorado Department of Education: http://www.cde.state.co.us/scripts/federalstimulus/index.asp
U.S. Department of Education estimates of state allocations: http://www.ed.gov/about/overview/budget/statetables/09arrastatetables.pdf