In the last year, Congress has now invested nearly $200 billion to support K–12 education. It’s an unprecedented federal infusion of money, but will it lead to an unprecedented recovery effort? It’s worth taking a moment to pause and consider the range of possibilities.
Under the best-case scenario, the stimulus funds would spur districts to help students recover from learning gaps that accumulated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Districts would identify individual student academic needs and use the one-time stimulus money to design a set of supports responding to those needs, such as those outlined by the crowd-sourced The Acceleration Imperative. For example, they might create a new tutoring program or find other ways to deliver extra learning time for students.
The stimulus funds are sufficient to accomplish many of these things. With a total investment now equal to about $3,750 per student, districts can afford to buy every student a Google Chromebook; follow the CDC’s guidance for masks, plexiglass shields, cleaning supplies, and additional personnel costs; and still have money left over to provide a year of one-to-one tutoring for all low-income students.
New staffing structures or school calendars would also benefit teachers by reducing their burdens or offering them a new way to earn more money. Teachers have always faced classrooms of students with widely disparate needs, and the pandemic only heightened those disparities. But a tutoring program would help lighten those burdens placed on individual teachers. And while average teacher salaries have remained flat over time, other ways to extend student learning time could give teachers a path to boost their take-home pay.
District leaders would see the value of these reforms and find ways to make them permanent. As the pandemic eases and the recovery efforts successfully get students back on track, districts could scale back and focus on fewer and fewer students who continue to need extra support. By focusing their efforts on high-need students, districts wouldn’t need to worry about the “maintenance of equity” provision included in the latest round of federal funding because the new dollars would naturally flow to students and schools who need the most support.
State leaders would use their 10 percent of the money to invest in improvements to the old systems, not merely returning to normal. That might include modifying assessment systems to be delivered remotely, with results delivered instantaneously; matching district investments in high-quality curriculum materials; enhancing data systems to monitor performance and give better feedback to parents and educators; or creating or expanding new delivery models to provide families with more educational options.
In this scenario, parents, voters, and policymakers would be able to point to solid evidence of where the money was spent and what was most effective. Districts would be able to convince their communities to keep paying for successful interventions out of their ongoing operating budgets.
Under the worst case scenario, the stimulus funds might allow more schools to reopen, but many districts would continue to deliver less-than-full-time instruction. Due to ongoing concerns about spacing, only a portion of students would be allowed on campus. With instructional time limited and widespread variation in how much live instruction students receive, schools would be unable to assess student academic needs in any systematic way. As a result, they’d offer the same services to all students, regardless of student need.
Teachers, for their part, would see no direct benefits from the stimulus funds. Students would arrive in classrooms with widely disparate needs, but teachers would be left to find their own professional development and attempt to tailor their instruction accordingly.
District leaders would be mainly focused on yes/no decisions around reopening rather than anything to do with the content or amount of instructional time students receive. Without proactively planning how to allocate the funding across years to address student needs, districts would use the stimulus funds to hire back full-time staff and pay agreed-upon raises, and the money would trickle away.
States, for their part, would use their share of the stimulus funds to backfill budgets and deploy “hold harmless” provisions that allow districts with declining enrollments to continue receiving the same funds. Instead of targeting spending on students and schools who need it the most, states and districts would avert the maintenance-of-effort provisions by enacting across-the-board percentage cuts.
In this worst-case scenario, policymakers would not be able to show how the stimulus money was spent or whether it was effective. Districts could face a fiscal cliff due to the staff they hired, and may be forced into a round of disruptive layoffs without an additional infusion of funds.
Realistically, we’re likely to see a mix of these scenarios. Some of that will depend on the shape of state and district budgets in the years to come. In theory, it could also depend on the continued evolution of Covid-19. But in practice, school reopening decisions—and thus district budget and remediation decisions—have been more influenced by local politics and the power of teachers unions than Covid case counts.
Still, with fifty states and 13,000 school districts, we’re likely to see pockets of innovation rather than an immediate large-scale adoption of any one change. That’s probably a good thing. And let’s hope we can learn from those efforts over time. How this plays out, and whether we end up with more districts closer to the best-case than the worst-case scenario outlined here, will ultimately depend on state and local leaders making smart decisions on how to make the most of the federal investments.