• North Carolina public schools will receive over $6 billion in funding to address the academic, emotional, and social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic
  • Such levels of funding present high-risk and high-opportunity options for schools
  • Schools can ensure these funds are well spent by developing plans that are transparent, are strategic, discuss relevant trade-offs, encourage flexibility, and understand the implications of their choices

Part 1 of this two-part series discussed how the federal government’s legislative response to coronavirus, coming on the heels of an improving economy, has produced the highest funding levels in years for K-12 education in North Carolina. Part 2 will briefly review results on how some districts are spending this money and highlight ways to ensure school districts use the money wisely.

Peeking into the future: how schools are spending money

States had until May 24 to distribute $81 billion in federal funds to school districts — about two-thirds of the total K-12 aid distributed under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). School districts have until August 24 to submit plans to their state offices explaining how they will spend these Covid-19 relief funds. The law has been heavy on using the money to address learning loss (districts are required to set aside 20 percent of funding to address learning loss).

With schools and states already spending Covid funds, it would be good to ask: Are schools heeding the intent of the Covid relief legislation and focusing spending on learning loss mitigation and other ways to remediate the academic and emotional impact of the coronavirus pandemic? Or are they looking at other ways to spend billions in funding?

Writing for the education news site The 74, Marguerite Roza, professor and director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, was not encouraged  by what she found in an early look at school district plans on how they would spend billions in federal funding.

She found that many districts were planning to use federal money to fill budget gaps, hire staff, and give bonuses to teachers. She found little talk about plans that had been discussed to help students, such as tutoring, extending the school year, new delivery models, empowering parents to choose educational options, and encouraging new content and course options.

There is a great temptation to use the Covid money to provide teachers and staff with Covid pay or hire additional staff. It is already happening. Roza and others had warned against using the Covid relief funding on pay raises and new staff. Since this is one-time funding, as opposed to recurring, it would be very difficult to find the future funding for those ongoing expenses.

How can North Carolina schools use this money wisely?

Covid-19 and the government’s response to it represents one of the biggest tests our schools have ever faced. Because of the dispersed nature of these impacts, the challenges often vary by economics, race, geography, and community. Educators developing plans on how local school districts should spend Covid relief funds can increase the likelihood the funds are well spent if they build the following guidelines into their plans:

  1. Be transparent. ARPA is sending $3.2 billion in Covid relief funding to North Carolina. That’s a lot of money. Such a large amount should invite scrutiny. Reopening schools are critical moments. Schools should expect and even welcome the additional interest to help restore the integrity and reputation of our public schools.
  2. Frame the discussion in terms of trade-offs. All spending decisions involve trade-offs. That is, when we decide to spend money on a given project, that decision means other plans will be impacted in different ways. For example, should North Carolina use ARPA money to reduce class sizes or provide 50% of students with intensive tutoring? Should North Carolina offer summer remedial camps for 50% of all students or provide intensive academic support for the neediest students? Framing options in terms of trade-offs will give the public and educators a better understanding of the plan and the trade-offs.
  3. Encourage flexibility. The dispersed nature of the current challenges argues against large, one-size-fits-all solutions. As such, principals should be given maximum flexibility to encourage innovation and customized solutions for students. This oftentimes is at the expense of equity. As such, districts must be comfortable with the decision to empower principals and superintendents. It means that some districts and superintendents may be more innovative than others, and not all districts have access to the same services.
  4. Be on the lookout for good options. There is no shortage of good ideas for how districts can spend money. Educators should study what works best for their age groups, students, and circumstances. Some of the more popular ideas include:Colorado: Free tutoring program for students provided by Khan Academy.

    Pioneered the concept of community learning hubs, where students can work in small groups with customized tutoring and mentoring supports.

    North Carolina:
    House Bill 934 as introduced would offer families up to $1,000 per student to help redress the academic needs of students. The money could be used on a variety of educational expenses, including tutoring, testing, books, instructional materials, and the like.Pennsylvania: Considering legislation to allow parents to determine if their child should be promoted to the next grade level. This allowance would be good for one year.
  5. Be strategic. Use current problems to move toward better solutions in all areas. For example, most school finance advocates favor systems where funding is tied to the student — not the system. The current crisis offers opportunities to move forward by adopting programs such as proposed in H.B. 934, which encourage student-centered financing and solutions that help all students.
  6. Understand the implications of choices. Some school districts are urging the hiring of additional staff such as teachers, nurses, psychologists, and counselors to help address the academic and emotional needs of students. Covid relief funds are one-time funds, not ongoing funding. If staff are hired using Covid funds, policymakers would need to address now how those personnel would be paid in the future.

The risks are very high, but so are the opportunities

The closing of thousands of schools over Covid-19 cast a black cloud over North Carolina public schools. A combination of an improving economy and a massive infusion of billions in federal dollars has helped schools not only avoid worst-case scenarios, but also put many schools and school districts in their best financial position in years. North Carolina will receive federal aid totaling over $6 billion in K-12 Covid relief. Covid federal funding is equivalent to adding nearly $3,900 per North Carolina public K-12 student.

A strong case could be made that our schools did not need all the additional funding. Questions linger. The economy was already improving. Like many other states, North Carolina had yet to spend all the Covid relief dollars it had received. Covid aid was intended as an emergency response and meant to get schools reopened and dealing with the academic, social, and emotional impacts of the coronavirus. But truth be told, many schools were already reopening last fall.

Covid funding was intended as emergency aid. If so, why are schools allowed to spread out Covid spending over years, well after the height of the pandemic? In addition, North Carolina had wisely been prudent in spending and had faithfully put money away in a “rainy day” fund. Wasn’t this just the type of emergency state governments save for? Despite those realities, the money — lots of money — is flowing and coming to North Carolina public schools.

This massive infusion of dollars represents a high-risk, high-opportunity venture. The education landscape is littered with massive federal programs that spent billions and failed to deliver: Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Race to the Top. Spending billions is no guarantee of improving outcomes. The far more important question is: how will those dollars be spent?

Despite the unease generated by unprecedented federal spending, the massive ARPA program presents some opportunities. Unlike other aid programs, schools and school districts — not the state — will receive the majority of funds. As such the money will truly be local. The amount of money — $6 billion — can be transformational if it’s spent wisely.

A high percentage of aid is intended to address the disproportional impacts of Covid on minority and disadvantaged communities. It’s a worthy goal, although not one with a track record of success. How policymakers choose to spend money will help determine the success or failure of this massive infusion of funds. Do spending plans encourage transparency? Do they encourage flexibility and innovation? Do they seek to replicate what works? Are they made by policymakers who understand the implications of their choices? Building such principles into spending plans will encourage success.

Coronavirus funding presents many opportunities to misspend funds or to improve schools, remediate leaning loss, and help the social and emotional needs of students. Will we give principals the flexibility they need to respond the differing needs of their students?

Coronavirus funding also presents an opportunity to make education more parent-centric and school funding more child-centered. It can also provide principals more flexibility to respond innovatively to the needs of their students. Should these opportunities be realized, they will be transformational.

There are no certainties. How educators in North Carolina spend $6 billion in funding should invite a lot of scrutiny. It’s filled with risk and opportunity. If our schools capitalize on the opportunity, the changes can be significant and beneficial to parents, students, and taxpayers. If the money is misspent with no tangible results, the losses will be long lasting and produce a difficult narrative for the public schools to shake, ever. The stakes couldn’t be higher.