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IT Management

Schools Are Flush With Stimulus Money. Will They Waste It on Unproven Technology?

By Benjamin Herold — April 20, 2021 8 min read
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The Red River Parish school district serves one of the poorest, most rural areas of Northern Louisiana. But thanks to federal spending in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the district there now has two Chromebooks for each of its 1,400 students—and officials expect to receive up to $6 million in additional stimulus funds in the months ahead.

“It probably quadrupled our technology budget,” Superintendent Alison Hughes said of the cash influx.

The federal CARES Act signed into law by former President Donald Trump last March provided school districts with about $13.2 billion through what’s known as the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER. That was followed in December by roughly $54.3 billion more in “ESSER II” funds.

Now, thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act signed into law by President Joe Biden last month, districts are gearing up for another $81 billion in “ESSER III” support. State departments of education and state and local agencies considering broadband-infrastructure efforts will collectively receive tens of billions more.

So far, say experts in school finance and technology, the funds flooding the K-12 sector have been poorly tracked. Anecdotally, it appears that huge chunks of money have gone to millions of new devices, a host of emergency efforts to get families high-speed internet at home, and new or expanded digital learning platforms and instructional tools.

Well before the pandemic, however, there were plenty of signs that ed tech’s reality fell far short of its promise. Somewhere between $26 billion and $41 billion each year goes to school technology, despite a paucity of research showing that such purchases are effective, said Bart Epstein, the CEO of the EdTech Evidence Exchange and a professor of education and human development at the University of Virginia.

And back in 2009, the last time the federal government poured stimulus money into schools, many districts rushed into the ed-tech market without a long-term plan for supporting their new purchases. The result was horror stories of teachers projecting old-school transparencies onto $2,500 digital whiteboards unable to connect to the internet.

Could the current stimulus-fueled ed-tech spending spree lead to similar problems?

“There is a substantial risk that much of the technology now being purchased will be poorly implemented and go underutilized or not be used at all,” Epstein said. “People are buying things on the basis of hope, not on the basis of evidence.”

‘Ninety percent of it went to technology’

Hughes has worked in the Red River Parish Schools for 20 years, including the last five as superintendent. Like many of her students, she and her own children struggle to access high-speed internet at home, relying on a combination of a satellite connection and mobile hotspots to balance work meetings and school lessons.

“It doesn’t work very well,” she said.

Before the pandemic hit, Red River Parish had an annual operating budget of about $22 million. The district was already 1-to-1, offering a Chromebook to each of its students. Many of the devices, however, were old or starting to break. Some couldn’t connect to Odysseyware, the learning management system the district used primarily for credit recovery in high school.

After COVID-19 closed school buildings last March, Hughes and the local school board decided to buy a complete set of 1,700 new Chromebooks for their students. (Students now have separate devices for home and school use.) They also bought 150 additional devices for teachers, plus dozens of mobile hotspots for families. In addition, the district switched to a new learning platform they thought would work better for remote instruction, especially in the lower grades.

All the changes were covered by the first round of federal stimulus dollars.

“We got a little over $800,000 in CARES Act funding,” Hughes said. “Ninety percent of it went to technology.”

That was typical in Louisiana, said Cade Brumley, the state’s superintendent of education.

“We overwhelmingly saw investment in devices,” he said.

Bar chart showing how much districts have invested in the certain technology-related categories since the pandemic

Though detailed, district-by-district spending data are hard to come by, the pattern also appears to be common across the nation. A February survey by the Association of School Business Officers International estimated that 72 percent of districts invested ESSER I funds in technology. Thanks to ESSER II, roughly two-thirds anticipate similar investments this school year and next.

The legislative language in the CARES Act was vague on districts’ reporting requirements, though, and the constant crises caused by the pandemic allowed many districts little room for strategic planning.

Red River Parish, for example, had to completely change its instructional model multiple times over the past 12 months. Last school year finished all-remote. This year started hybrid, with about 60 percent of students attending school in-person at least part-time. Even then, high school students spent months coming to school in person, but learning online via Chromebooks, sitting in the same classrooms with the same small group of students all day in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We flew by the seat of our pants for a little while,” Hughes said.

Districts hope to use stimulus dollars to build better instructional systems

Now, the American Rescue Plan Act means tens of billions more dollars for schools. The legislation authorizing ESSER III funds has more detailed reporting requirements than the CARES Act. Schools and districts will also have until September 2024 to spend the funds, hopefully allowing for more thoughtful planning.

As a result, said ASBO International Executive Director David Lewis, the K-12 sector now has the opportunity to approach technology spending with a greater focus on the long-term.

“OK, what’s next?” Lewis said.

Bar chart showing what, if anything, do educators predict will change instructionally over the next two years for your students as a result of the increase in district or school provided Chromebooks, laptops, tablets, and other devices provided to them.

In the 3,100-student Upper Moreland school system outside Philadelphia, there is now money available to tackle that question. Before the pandemic, the district’s annual technology budget was around $450,000. This school year, it’s an estimated $1.4 million.

One priority will be refreshing and upgrading some of the 744 devices the district purchased with CARES Act money, as well as some of the older technology the district still has in circulation (including some digital whiteboards that date back to the 2009 stimulus). Superintendent Michael Roth said he expects to replace Chromebooks with tablets for some of his district’s youngest children, and with higher-powered laptops for at least some high school students.

The guiding question, he said, will be, “Where do we need better technology the most?”

Roth also hopes to invest in new data systems and digital instructional resources that will help Upper Moreland identify and support students who fell academically behind or struggled with trauma and social-emotional troubles during the pandemic. Tailoring instruction and services to meet individual students’ needs will be key in the months ahead, he said. That will require new and better professional development, including coaching on how to best integrate technology into classroom instruction.

And perhaps the biggest shift, also being considered by thousands of other districts across the country, involves making permanent the virtual and hybrid instructional models adopted in response to the pandemic. Upper Moreland, for example, used to offer high school students online courses run by a third-party vendor. Now, with as many as 20 percent of local parents expressing interest in long-term virtual schooling, Roth envisions the district running such a program itself.

Such a move would likely mean new staffing costs, paying for equipment upgrades, and possibly even new infrastructure investments.

On the upside, however, Roth hopes the move might bring back some of the families—and corresponding per-pupil funding—who have left Upper Moreland for Pennsylvania’s full-time online charter schools. Once, that amounted to less than three dozen students a year, at an annual cost of about $688,000. Since the pandemic, however, that number is up to 79, representing $1.2 million in lost dollars this school year.

“It’s an ideal time to use the extra support to make some of these ideas a reality,” Roth said. “The stimulus will allow us to build.”

Experts recommend going slow, plenty of due diligence before purchasing ed tech

In Red River Parish, Superintendent Hughes is also dreaming big. Her wish list for ESSER III dollars includes building a new high-speed fiber network that might finally bring high-speed internet to the homes of her students—and herself.

“We’re in the idea stage right now,” she said.

But such visions for how the American Rescue Plan Act might affect school technology programs may prove overly optimistic.

Many of the technology purchases districts have already made come with recurring long-term expenses, such as renewing annual software licenses or replacing low-cost devices that may have only a two- or three-year lifespan. Districts need to start planning now for how to cover those expenses, especially after stimulus dollars have gone away.

Bar chart showing much districts plan to invest in the following technology-related categories next school year (2021-22)

While budgets so far haven’t been as bleak as many predicted, schools also must be prepared for a possible funding cliff, especially if federal stimulus funding runs out before the economy has rebounded as economists and elected officials hope.

And the unfortunate reality, said Epstein of the University of Virginia, is that history suggests much of the money K-12 schools are about to receive will inadvertently be spent unwisely, including on technology that is ineffective and under-utilized.

His advice to district leaders?

Complete your due diligence, study whether the ed tech you’re considering has an established track record in schools similar to yours, and make sure you can fully support anything you buy.

“My greatest fear is that schools will spend too much, too fast, on things they only hope will work,” Epstein said. “But we are probably about to waste tens of billions of stimulus dollars.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2021 edition of Education Week as Schools Are Flush With Stimulus Money. Will They Waste It on Unproven Technology?

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