by Dr. Robert Luebke
Senior Fellow, Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
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.
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.
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:
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.