With two big rounds of Covid-19 aid having been sent to schools and at least a third on the horizon, leaders must make difficult decisions, especially as more schools reopen and the pandemic rages on. How can they use this money to best mitigate risk, facilitate effective hybrid learning, and most importantly, get kids back on track after suffering substantial learning losses? And how can they spend funds without creating expensive new obligations going forward, especially given states’ precarious fiscal situations?
Those were the topics of a recent American Enterprise Institute webinar in which I participated alongside fellow panelists Marguerite Roza, Director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University; Pedro Martinez, Superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District; and Karen Hawley Miles, Chief Executive Officer and President of Education Resource Strategies. Deftly moderated by Frederick M. Hess, AEI’s Director of Education Policy Studies, the conversation was based on issues raised in Hess’s and my edited volume, Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck (Teachers College Press, 2020), to which Roza and Hawley Miles contributed chapters.
The first sizable federal stimulus package came via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020, which provided around $31 billion for schools, “about 2–3 percent of a typical district [single-year] budget to the school districts that had the highest concentration of student need,” said Hawley Miles on the webinar. “And most districts have spent most of that, but some have a little bit left. Those dollars went to short-term needs around [personal protective equipment], technology, and those kinds of things.”
The Consolidated Appropriations Act followed in December 2020, and provided schools with about four times the amount of the previous package. “So that is totaling 8–12 percent [of a typical budget] in some of these districts,” said Hawley Miles. “It’s going to come in a couple of different installments.... But it needs to be spent by September 2023.”
There is also a lot that districts can do with the money. “The beauty about these [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] funds is that they’re completely flexible,” said Martinez about the bulk of the federal aid. “That’s something...we’ve never had before. Everything has always been with a lot of strings and a lot of bureaucracy.” “We sat around trying to think of something you couldn’t spend it on, and we couldn’t come up with one,” quipped Roza.
A third round of stimulus is currently being discussed in Washington, and its education component is expected to be substantial—as much as “four to five times” the December 2020 amount, said Roza. “But the numbers are certain to evolve.”
How should leaders use these precious aid dollars? To mitigate as much as a year of learning loss for some students, they’ll have to be aggressive and change the way education is done and money is spent. If schools “try to do it the same old way we’ve always done it, if we add a bunch of time using the same structures and same ways of organizing people, time, and money, if we try to do seat-time in the same way that we did before, we’re not going to be able to recover the learning loss with those dollars,” says Hawley Miles. “This is the time to really think out of the box,” echoed Martinez.
One promising strategy is expanding the school day or school year. “We’re going to put our money down on extra time for the families,” said Martinez about San Antonio’s plans. “We’re looking at two things. One is, we want to redesign our system so that we can have two years of pre-K, not just one... Another one is…expanding the school year.... Right now my teachers and parents are voting on two different calendar options. But basically both calendar options add in thirty days, some front end, some back end, some are Saturdays,” he said.
The approaches would also be different based on grade. “What I’m telling my elementary schools is, maybe as a team, bring in your youngest children earlier in the summer, and it’s full-day, plus we’ll work with afterschool providers to extend the school day beyond even 4 o’clock to 6 o’clock,” said Martinez. “For my older kids that struggle with credits, credit recovery—[and others who] struggle with getting ready for AP exams, SAT, ACT—we can do Saturdays. We can do back-end stuff, as well, so that we can make sure that they don’t fall through the cracks.” An important point here is that schools get to customize the extra time in whatever ways will have the greatest benefit for their students and families.
Customization ought to apply to districts, too. “The most important choice is for districts to line up a bunch of cost-equivalent alternatives...and then consider which one of these make the most sense for our situation,” said Roza. For example, “We could spend the money to reduce class size by two students for two years. We could spend that money to add one month of school.... We could do high-dosage tutoring for a third of the kids. Or we could even just pass the money down to the schools...and say ‘What do you think your students need?’” Roza here is echoing Martinez’s San Antonio approach, adding “If [needs are] different by school, we ought to consider ‘Should we let the schools decide which option will work best for their students and for their staff?’ And I think that’s how we become a little bit more nimble and adaptive and innovative. What I would not do is lock in a one-size-fits-all strategy when there are still so many unknowns ahead.”
Determining what these needs are, however, especially at the student level, requires measurement. “We have to ensure that we test kids this year to find out how much learning lose actually had,” I said on webinar, citing Fordham’s recent study on what would happen if students who weren’t tested in 2020 because of the pandemic also weren’t tested in 2021. It found that just 27 percent of students attend schools that could generate growth measures in such cases. Administering tests this year to measure learning losses is therefore vital.
Districts should also avoid taking on long-term obligations, like hiring more staff, with the short-term money. The pandemic will affect K–12 state revenues for years to come, and much of the aid that has and will be given to schools will be used to fill in budgetary gaps caused by the virus—will simply make districts whole. (See, for example, this slide deck from Roza’s Edunomics Lab about the forthcoming funding cliff.) If aid then ends, and district have taken on new long-term obligations, it will further delay recovery and take dollars away from programs that will need it. “Don’t set up an expectation that the money continues,” said Roza, who gave an example related to teacher pay. “Don’t put it into your base-salary structure. Pay it as bonus money for extra time that we know goes away.”
The pandemic is far from over, and its trajectory in 2021 is unknown, depending largely on the effectiveness of our vaccination efforts, the spread and emergence of variants, and umpteen other variables over which schools have no control. This, along with whatever stimulus money the federal government adds, will significantly affect the decisions state, district, and school leaders can and ought to make. No matter what, however, they need to make these decisions carefully and in ways that are tailored to specific needs. The futures of our students, especially our most disadvantaged children, depend on it.
Editor's note: This piece was updated to more accurately describe the potential stimulus amount in the aid package currently under consideration in Washington.