Could a small federal pilot program about equitable school funding become more attractive during the COVID-19 pandemic? We’re about to find out.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that she was making $3 million available to help districts create “weighted per-pupil funding” systems. This pilot program, authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act, allows up to 50 districts to pool their federal, state, and local dollars to direct more aid to low-income and “otherwise disadvantaged” students—think English-language learners, for example.
This pilot is ultimately intended to have more money follow students who could benefit most from additional resources. Some districts in cities like Denver and Indianapolis have built such weighted-funding systems on their own.
But the pilot has been open to districts for more than four years, and so far there hasn’t been a huge rush of interest in the federal pilot.
One dynamic at work is that there are a fair number of federal strings attached without a ton of money to go along with it. In 2019, the Congressional Research Service explored the possible reasons behind the lack of interest.
As of last summer, just six districts had applied to participate in the pilot, and the only one that got federal approval was Puerto Rico (which operates as a single island-wide district). But then Puerto Rico promptly got that approval yanked by the U.S. Department of Education for not getting amendments to its plan approved first before the district forged ahead.
In the context of federal grants, $3 million is pretty small potatoes; just compare it to the $180 million for microgrants and other student-centered COVID-19 funding DeVos announced recently. But as the coronavirus potentially upends how schools think about issues like instruction and spending, perhaps this pilot might seem more attractive, especially if some education leaders think it could address chronic disparities that have only been underscored by the virus.
“This clear and quantifiable way to allocate education funding provides much-needed transparency, predictability, and autonomy at the local level, and helps to ensure the money follows students who need the most support,” DeVos said in a Monday statement announcing the grants.
The Education Department also said in a release that, “School districts must also consult parents, teachers, school leaders, and other relevant stakeholders as they develop and implement the student-centered funding system.”