Opinion
Federal Opinion

Schools Are Staring Down a Fiscal Tsunami. Here’s What States Need to Do Now

By Thomas J. Kane — April 19, 2020 3 min read
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Within the next few weeks, governors and education agencies in all 50 states will be drawing up plans to spend more than $13.5 billion in federal stabilization dollars for K-12 education. However, with the fiscal tsunami about to hit state and local budgets just off shore, this is no time to simply “stabilize” schools. Leaders should use the funds to help schools get moving—and to prepare for the hard times to come.

First, as a condition of receiving a share of the federal funding, states should require districts to build systems to track students’ engagement with their online instruction on a daily basis. News media have been rife with stories of children at home unable to access their schools’ online offerings. Knowing which students are engaging regularly with online lessons will be essential to eliminating obstacles this summer and next school year. When schools open again, teachers will need to know which students have been engaging with their online content and which have not.

Second, states should provide districts with diagnostic tools to allow teachers to assess where their students stand—both academically and emotionally—when classes reconvene. Rather than have each district cobble something together on their own, states should draw items from the assessments which were canceled this spring to assess students’ academic readiness in the fall. The assessment data will allow a state to know which students have slipped the most since the spring 2019 assessments and to target programs to help those students catch up. The surveys should also ask students about their emotional well-being and any obstacles they face in using technology at home. Obviously, such a tool should be used for diagnostic purposes rather than accountability.

When students enroll in the fall, they will need the content they missed this spring to ensure that they don’t fail their follow-on courses."

Third, for those districts that are planning to open for classes this summer, states should reimburse them only on the basis of actual daily attendance, not on the number of seats they are providing. Because attendance during summer sessions is always low, programs need to have an incentive to get families to show up as frequently as possible. Funding for summer programs should prioritize disadvantaged students, who typically lose the most during the summer, especially in math.

Fourth, states should solicit bids to provide online course materials for those middle school and high school courses that serve as prerequisites (such as Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and introductory sciences.) Many school districts are planning to give students full credit for the courses that were cut short this spring. That may be the fair thing to do, but there is a reason some courses have prerequisites. When students enroll in the fall, they will need the content they missed this spring to ensure that they don’t fail their follow-on courses.

However, simply putting those materials online will not be sufficient. Many students are going to need individualized tutoring to help them master the material. For students with below-median scores on past state assessments, the state should use outcomes-based contracting to pay school districts, charter schools, or approved tutoring companies for each student they can help pass a state-approved assessment in one of the prerequisite courses this summer or fall. Reducing future retention, by reducing the number of students failing follow-on courses, will save taxpayers from having to pay for a fifth year of high school for millions more students. (Retention is costly, as the average cost of a year of public school is $13,400 per student nationally.)

Finally, states should encourage districts and community colleges to reach out to students this summer to avert a spike in dropout rates after the long absence from classes. Although the dearth of job opportunities will discourage students from dropping out, the state should invite schools and colleges to apply for funds to draw students back to classes—such as incentivizing instructors to reach out, organizing phone banks for students to call their peers, or providing limited loan forgiveness for those who come back and finish degrees.

In the midst of the current crisis, states have an opportunity to think in a new way—paying per-day attendance rather than per student, using outcome-based contracting to pay providers for helping disadvantaged students pass end-of-course assessments, providing online materials for certain prerequisite classes, and even piloting different types of outreach to students and families to encourage retention. The states that mobilize schools now will be more prepared when the fiscal tsunami hits.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2020 edition of Education Week as Schools Are Staring Down a Fiscal Tsunami

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