During the pandemic, Uncle Sam has provided unprecedented amounts of emergency aid to K-12 education. How can school leaders most effectively use these funds to overcome learning disruptions, give students the support they need, and position students and schools for future success? To tackle these queries, I reached out to Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, author of Educational Economics: Where Do School Funds Go, and RHSU favorite, to get her take on how to spend COVID-19 aid wisely and well. Here’s what she had to say.
Rick: Can you remind us how much COVID-relief money there’s been for K-12, what strings are attached, and who decides how it gets spent?
Marguerite: Sure. Congress basically went all-in on a grand experiment by cutting checks in three waves to send funds to districts to the total tune of roughly $3,750 per student—for a total of $189 billion—while asking for very little in return. Yes, the broad goal was to help students get back on track, but districts have virtual carte blanche in how they spend the money, and it is indeed the district that gets to decide. Just about any expenditure is fair game, including paying for new buildings, teacher bonuses, security contracts, staff stipends, COVID tests, electric buses, data systems, and more. Those are all real examples of district choices, by the way. The money must be spent by 2024. Districts have to make a spending plan, with fall due dates that vary by state; get it approved by the state ed. agency; and post it online.
Rick: What are some of the more promising ways you’ve seen these dollars spent?
Marguerite: We’re seeing districts adapt to help make sure students are returning—things like finding ways to transport kids during bus driver shortages, updating ventilation, creating virtual offerings where needed, and so on. These actions make sense as schools restart from pandemic shutdowns. And to get kids back on track, we’ve seen districts launch summer programs, tutoring, tele-counseling, longer school years, and more. Some districts are targeting one-time raises to address key shortage areas, like special education teachers, offering incentive packages to cover moving expenses plus retention bonuses, and paying stipends for teachers who take on extra work. These are promising pay innovations that run against the grain of the uniform step-and-column pay structure that’s dominated for decades. That’s not to say that every investment will be a success; some districts will need to pivot again. But where we see districts drilling down on student needs and nimbly solving the problems at hand, that’s good news.
Rick: What are schools doing that gives you pause?
Marguerite: Any investments that aren’t made on behalf of kids, like giving outsized across-the-board base-pay raises. Or spending on new facilities that won’t be completed in time to benefit today’s students, the ones impacted by the pandemic. Or when districts invest in the easy thing—like hiring more vice principals or paying forward on a security contract—not because they believe in the value but because it moves a lot of money quickly in a familiar way. Or using the money to backfill budgets that should have been rightsized years ago for enrollment drops that started long before the pandemic. (Ahem, Minneapolis, we saw what you did there using half your relief funds to stave off layoffs and program reductions.) We worry, too, about districts using this temporary money to hire a slew of new permanent staff because it sets them up to fall off a fiscal cliff.
Rick: What are a few of the more common mistakes you’re seeing?
Marguerite: We’ve created a list of six common mistakes that include making recurring commitments that bring a disruptive fiscal cliff and using federal funds to avert overdue cuts in a system that’s been losing kids for years. Also included is the risk of issuing problematic contracts that haven’t been vetted publicly and don’t include measurable milestones for the vendor. These kinds of contracts can get leaders in trouble down the road if not given proper attention. On equity, we suspect in hindsight some districts will have concentrated their relief funds in more advantaged schools, which can happen unintentionally, especially when positions get filled immediately in advantaged schools while vacancies linger in higher-needs schools. Another mistake: Some districts may be spending in a way that’s at odds with what the community values. Lastly, the mother of all mistakes would be spending in a way that doesn’t demonstrate results for students.
Rick: Overall, what share of the spending that you see do you find concerning?
Marguerite: That’s the $189 billion question, Rick. For starters, only 10 percent of the funding has been spent so far. And any eventual answer to your question is going to come on a district-by-district basis. One district may have spent thoughtfully while the neighboring one may not have much to show for it. That last part is key. Because part of the proof on spending is in the outcomes. What did you get for the spending? We need to think hard about how we’re tracking this and on what basis we’re evaluating what success means for this money, because the feds certainly didn’t define it. But communities sure can press their districts on this.
Rick: You spend a lot of time talking to state, system, and school leaders. When you do, what kind of advice are you giving them?
Marguerite: I don’t think it’s about what specifically to buy because districts and schools are different. But we did outline some principles to guide those choices and drafted questions to hopefully prompt wise spending. We suggest avoiding recurring commitments, spending equitably, and measuring whether investments are working. We’ve encouraged districts to keep the focus on students and avoid one-size-fits-all solutions. Toward that end, we’ve seen some districts, like Atlanta, Chicago, and Denver, send a portion of the money directly to schools so principals and communities can work together on what their students need. Many, including us, were hoping that a federal education package of this size would spur some lasting innovations. So far, many districts are doing more of the same things they’ve always done. But a few states, like Utah, are deploying a slice of funds via competitive grants for new ways to serve students. And some districts are making bold moves, such as allowing drivers to bring their toddlers on their bus routes or offering parents cash incentives to arrange their own transportation in response to the school bus driver shortage.
Rick: How well do you think the media is covering the use of these funds? Pretty well? Not so well?
Marguerite: This is an important moment for ed. finance journalism. Most districts have more funds than they’ve ever had. But some in the media are having a hard time shifting their coverage to meet this new reality. I think media got used to a certain narrative, one of scarcity and cuts in public education. And the media story that “teachers are leaving in droves” keeps popping up even though the numbers say otherwise—job openings are indeed everywhere, but so far, those appear to be driven more by a surge in new hiring funded by relief dollars than by teacher departures. There’s so much for journalists to cover right now: how districts are investing new dollars; whether that’s working to meet student needs; what that means for the labor market. The public needs media to meet this moment.
Rick: What should readers know about federal COVID aid that may surprise them?
Marguerite: The money is so flexible, and if districts are saying they’re not allowed to do something, they’re usually wrong. We’ve heard districts cite all sorts of restrictions that just don’t exist. For instance, some say they aren’t allowed to give any of the money to families, and that’s simply not true. There are districts right now sending a portion of the dollars to families for all sorts of things, like to parents for getting their kids to school, or to high schoolers for attendance in various programs or for getting vaccinated, or to families to pay for enrichment programs of their choosing or college savings accounts, and so on.
Rick: OK, last question. Any advice for parents, educators, or local officials who want to help ensure this money gets spent wisely and well?
Marguerite: While the feds attached very few strings to this money, one significant string is the requirement that districts engage with their communities when making spending decisions. This means that for the first time ever, parents can have a real voice when it comes to these decisions. And their voice has the backing of federal law. Hopefully, the added participation in financial choices can help keep the focus on students. Otherwise, it’s easy for budgets to be driven by a few strong political players or focus more heavily on employee impacts and potentially lose sight of what all the spending is about, really, which is the kids. There’s a real opportunity with this engagement to rebalance the school budgeting process. And that would be a win for districts as it has the potential to build community trust, ideas, and buy-in.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.