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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Budget & Finance Opinion

Searching for Common Ground: How to Spend Public Money in Education

By Rick Hess — March 15, 2022 3 min read
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Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I recently launched a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and identify common ground on some of the thorniest questions in education. I thought readers might enjoy perusing snippets of those conversations every now and then. Today, as the pandemic recedes, schools are tasked with spending much of the COVID-relief aid that’s still in their coffers, and observers ask how well these funds were spent, Pedro and I reflect on how to most effectively spend money in education.


Rick: Given all the COVID aid we’ve seen Washington pour into schools over the past two years, a figure that’s up over $200 billion, I have significant concerns about whether these dollars are being spent wisely or well. Where are you on that question?

Pedro: I think we both share some skepticism about how public money gets spent, and I think that’s healthy. I think it’s important, especially at the local and state levels, for people to be vigilant. We all know there are so many examples of misspending, overspending, poor spending. At the same time, education is a labor-intensive field that requires that we invest in people if we want to get better results. We just have to make sure that we’re making the wise investments in my opinion.

Rick: I’m with you there. We need to rethink the way dollars are spent in schools. Eighty percent of money in schools gets spent on people: salaries, benefits, all that. If there was anything that said, “Look, we’ve got a pension challenge that’s soaking up lots of dollars; we don’t want to just pour money in and then have it leak out of the bucket into retiree benefits.” So part of the solution, to me, is if we’re going to pony up dollars, it’s got to be part of a longer-term fix in the system. I could see spending 100-200 billion dollars and saying, “All right, I’m not crazy about this, but I get what we’re buying long term.”

Pedro: Yeah, and I believe that this is where if there were more bipartisanship, there would be, I think, hopefully good checks on use of funds. I agree that the pension problem is huge, and it’s not just the school systems; we’ve got police departments, we’ve got the whole public sector in trouble with this pension system. I don’t know what the long-term fix is, but we need one—because we’re going to need a public sector still. But I do think other branches of government really need to be vigilant about the ways in which money gets spent. The fear I have is that if the federal money districts receive is misspent, or spent on things that don’t clearly benefit kids, people may say, “Districts can’t be trusted to spend public funds wisely, and we should not allow that to happen again.”

Rick: And then, I think we need to think about where exactly money gets spent. If we’ve got kids who are massively alienated from school, I don’t think that just putting them in classrooms for five hours a day this summer is a promising solution. And yet I’m concerned that a lot of efforts to combat learning loss amount to doing more of what we’re used to doing.

Pedro: No, I agree. Meanwhile, one of the areas I think would be a wise investment is in tutoring. There are a lot of kids that need the direct human contact of a mentor, and one teacher with 25 to 30 kids is not going to be able to address it for kids who are very far behind. So tutors, well-trained tutors who can work in small groups with kids, I think would be a good investment. But I think there are other ways that money could be spent well, that could have a positive impact.

Rick: This seems like for those of us on the right and left, who really believe in investing money in education, there should be a natural win-win here. It seems like there’s a natural shared interest, on left and right, in getting good reporting on how dollars are actually used.

Pedro: There’s got to be guidance, guidance and accountability coming from the states when it comes to spending. They can’t just say it’s up to the districts. We have an experience here in California with what they call the local-control funding formula. It’s an equity-based funding plan, and districts are given money; if you have more high-needs kids, you get more money. And what we’ve seen from the research is some districts are real clear about how to use it, and many are not. And sometimes, it’s spent in a very questionable manner. So, you know I’m all for local control, but it needs to come with guidance and it needs to come with accountability.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast.

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