We are an independent, solution-oriented think tank at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.Learn More.

Spending Federal Covid Relief Aid for Schools Effectively and Equitably

FutureEd Director Thomas Toch spoke with Julie Allen, a Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative senior fellow, about the priorities and challenges of spending billions in Covid relief aid for K-12 education. The interview was initially published in the Initiative's Social Impact Review.

Julie Allen:  Tom, as you know, public school funding for K-12 education in the U.S. comes from government at the local, state, and federal levels, with federal funding typically representing less than 10% of the total.  For the second time in the 2000s, the federal government is providing substantial funding to help the education sector recover from crisis. The first was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 0f 2009 (ARRA), which allocated about $100 billion for education in the wake of the great recession.  COVID relief funding for education dwarfs that amount, standing at nearly $190 billion, including $125 billion under the American Rescue Plan for K-12. Beyond the significantly higher dollar amount, what is different this time around?  

Tom Toch:  In 2009, the Obama administration took the opportunity of the economic crisis to promote a range of school reform policies. A key policy component of the 2009 stimulus package for education was Race to the Top.  In order to get a piece of the $3.5 billion Race to the Top funding, the Department of Education (DOE) told states and districts that they needed to adopt the common core standards, test their students against those standards, report the results, and hold schools accountable for those results. The DOE also required states to get much more serious about holding teachers accountable for their performance. In contrast, this time around, under the American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration has given states and districts much more flexibility in how they spend the money. So it is a lot more money with far fewer strings attached. The result is that states and districts are using the funding in a wide variety of ways.

So there are fewer requirements imposed on states and districts in spending the federal relief funds, but has the DOE provided any guidance?

The DOE has provided some guidelines and parameters. For example, they want to ensure that some portion of the money is used to address learning loss. So you find districts spending money on tutoring initiatives, curriculum development, and efforts to improve the quality of teaching. You also see a focus on students’ social and emotional wellbeing because many educators have rightly observed that during the pandemic, many students were alienated from education and traumatized in a variety of ways.  The social-emotional side of schooling, reflected in school climate and a sense of belonging, was emerging as an important new priority in school improvement and student success even before the pandemic.  After students were dislocated from their friends and school allies, that focus has been amplified. We know that absenteeism increased dramatically during the pandemic. So you find, for example, some number of states and districts working hard to increase the number of school counselors, to do more mental health screening of students as they return to school, creating outreach programs in the form of home visits and other initiatives to reconnect with students to get them back into school. The bottom line is that there's a lot more flexibility built into the current round of federal relief.

With that flexibility, is there a mechanism in place to ensure that states do not cut their own education funding, so that the federal relief funding does not result in a funding decrease in the face of the challenges of the pandemic and unfinished learning?

 Yes, Congress put two mechanisms in place. The first is the so-called maintenance of effort provision that is intended to ensure that the federal funding is used to expand educational opportunities, rather than replace state and local funding that is currently supporting schools. So the funds are to supplement, not supplant, state and local funding. And the second is a maintenance of equity provision, which directs states and districts not to move money around the table in such a way that more affluent districts get a disproportionate share of the total monies. To say it differently and more directly, the maintenance of equity mechanism is designed to ensure that already underfunded districts don't lose any money in the process. So the question becomes how and to what extent is the DOE policing these mechanisms. It's not easy. As you know, we have a sprawling, decentralized K-12 education system with 50 states, Puerto Rico, and D.C., 13,300 school districts (and lots of intermediary entities between states and districts), and 100,000 schools. There are a lot of people making decisions in this model and it's really hard to track what everybody's doing at any given moment.

I know it's still early in this academic year but in hindsight, are there any emerging unintended consequences about the way the funding was structured that have hampered addressing high-priority needs?  

There have been some reports of spending on new athletic facilities, teacher bonuses, and other things that aren’t likely to raise student achievement. But there is no evidence of a lot of that, though, as you say, it’s early. To me, there's some reason for optimism in many of the state plans that have been submitted to the DOE for use of the COVID relief monies.

FutureEd and other think tanks and advocacy organizations have identified evidence-based interventions to help states and districts spend the federal funds effectively and equitably.  What have you seen in the spending plans that aligns with those priorities?

There have been three rounds of funding since March 2020—the first two have been largely spent—the first tranche was spent transitioning schools from in-person to virtual learning, and then the second tranche was spent reversing that process and ensuring that schools were safe for students to come back. In this third round, which states can spend through September 2024, I am encouraged by the fact that more than two dozen states have signaled their intention to build tutoring systems to increase districts’ and schools’ capacity to help students recover from lost learning opportunities.

As I said earlier, there's been a lot of attention to student mental health and addressing trauma: Two thirds of the states have signaled that they want to spend money on these two issues. Another interesting and encouraging development is in the use of data. Schools and school leaders are recognizing their ability to gather more information about students and use that data to inform action—data from in school—student success and performance, school climate, student engagement—combined with data from outside the school—housing status, levels of food insecurity, various wellness measures. For example, there is a very strong correlation between student absenteeism and asthma rates; asthma is in fact the single biggest source of student absenteeism in the nation’s schools.

[Read More: With an Influx of Covid Relief Funds, States Spend on Schools]

Thanks to emerging data sophistication, we now have the ability to combine all this information and to get a much clearer picture of how students are doing, what students need, how schools are doing, and how we should prioritize our efforts to improve schools and the educational experience that they provide. About two dozen states are moving on that front.  I think we're going to see a lot more of this. It’s an important trend in education and child wellbeing generally because it's combining what had been a traditional parochial focus on school metrics with a wider range of measures that reflect students’ opportunity to learn and that's very encouraging.

Another development that I think has been noteworthy and potentially valuable is the realization that we can use technology and various forms of distance learning to improve the quality and efficiency of instruction. We can get our best teachers in front of more students if we're willing to work hard to identify exactly who those teachers are and use the technology that we have become more comfortable with during the pandemic to maximize talent. There aren’t many districts that have pushed the envelope on this one, but some have, and the potential is clearly there to improve instructional quality as we embrace this emerging trend.

And when you're talking about technology, to be clear, are you talking about remote learning or also about how to be data-informed and how to utilize technology in a physical classroom as well?

At least the first two for sure. We can use remote learning systems to deliver instruction more efficiently and effectively by reaching more students with our best teachers. And because we have more information available to us, we’re increasingly able to make better, data-informed decisions on students’ behalf. But, we have to train educators to interpret the new data and give them the opportunity and the responsibility to use it effectively.

As you mentioned earlier, the federal funding has a 3 ½ year lifespan.  How should states and districts think about and plan for that funding cliff?  Is there a role for philanthropy or the private sector in bridging funding shortfalls, particularly once the federal funding rolls off?

In some instances, it would make sense to use the monies strictly for short-term needs like PPP and for other one-time investments, like replacing school ventilation systems. That’s very different than hiring additional teachers and having to pay their salaries in subsequent years. But there are also ways to hire additional staff effectively in the short term. For example, to do home visits to reach out to families, to reconnect with students, to learn both the family's needs and the student’s needs to help them reengage with school.  You can hire community members and even parents to do that work.

You can also build out a more permanent tutoring infrastructure by expanding partnerships with city and community agencies and non-profits. There are other resources that overlap with the mission of schools that could be brought to bear to extend the lifespan of some of the initiatives that are funded with short-term federal COVID relief monies.

On those partnership opportunities, though, one of the things that has been in the headlines recently is the real shortage of staff for after-school and community programs.

Yes, and we've also seen reports of shortages of bus drivers, cafeteria workers, aides, and substitutes. We went through a major economic dislocation layered on top of a public health crisis, and that's why we're pouring a lot of money into these systems to help them sustain themselves, on the one hand, and to create some economic momentum, on the other hand. So while there are some inefficiencies, hopefully, state and local school leaders and policymakers will be thoughtful about how they continue to spend these resources.

Turning for a moment to the equity side of the equation, many public education advocates hope that the focus on systemic inequities brought about by the serious challenges of the past two school years, combined with federal funding relief, will lead not to a return to pre-pandemic norms but to more effective and equitable public education policies and practices.  Where do you see the greatest opportunities for systemic change in K-12?

One is building a national tutoring infrastructure. At FutureEd, we've proposed that the U.S. Department of Education create an AmeriCorps-like system that doesn’t hire tutors at the federal level but helps with technical assistance and incentives for states and districts that want to build a more permanent infrastructure for supporting students, not just during the pandemic but subsequently. That could be a very valuable thing not only on the academic side of the equation, but also creating cadres of adults who can connect with students as mentors.  The research on high-quality tutoring suggests that building student-adult relationships beyond the core relationship between students and teachers can be really helpful.

Another is building out a national teaching corps that could address spot shortages around the country and shortages in specific subjects by providing federal loan forgiveness and salary supplements in return for a certain number of years of service. That would really help build the instructional foundation in schools at a time when teachers are a bit under siege. It would be a much more effective investment than, say, just giving every teacher a $1,000 bonus, that may show appreciation for teachers working through the pandemic but that is very expensive and there is no evidence that it helps schools get their teachers to stay in classrooms.  I do think that some technology-based innovative staffing strategies that emerged during the pandemic could result in long-term benefits.

[Read More: Covid Relief Playbook: Smart Strategies for Investing Federal Funding]

So, there are reasons to be optimistic about more systemic change, doing things differently, and hopefully better, post pandemic.  But one development has troubled me. I have started to hear, as I did 25 years ago at the outset of the standards movement, that traditional academic rigor is unfair to students of color and to low-income students, that traditional academic disciplines and standardized measures of student performance are inherently racist and classist. It is certainly true that a wide range of school and community factors diminish the opportunities of English language learners, low-income students, and students of color.  Their schools don't offer advanced courses, they don't have enough to eat every day, and so on; there are many problems. But we don't want to argue that academic rigor and traditional disciplines don't matter to low-income students and students of color. Don’t say that to Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. The power of their oratory against slavery and segregation was built on a deep knowledge of history and other traditional academic disciplines and on a powerful facility with language.  Students need to read works that illuminate their own cultural traditions and we need to tell the whole, honest truth about the American experience, but let's not fall victim to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

So it's not either/or, it’s both/and.

Toch:  Exactly, I mean the problem is that these issues get polarized.  To some people, the issue is standards; to others, it's culturally relevant instruction and curriculum. And then each side disparages and caricatures the other. We need to have both rigorous standards and an inclusive curriculum.

In hindsight, one of the shortcomings of the standards movement is that it took the notion of no excuses literally. Many of its most ardent proponents didn't want to hear the other side of the equation, because to them it was an excuse for not educating kids. The standards movement rightly said that we can and must do better by our traditionally underserved students. In the early phase of the standards movementA Nation at Risk and other education manifestos all argued that rigor cannot just be for the gifted and the privileged.

But what those advocates didn't have, what they weren't equipped with, was the knowledge coming out of social psychology that didn't get into the education conversation until five to 10 years ago through Carol Dweck and Claude Steele and others, who were arguing that yes, we need standards, but we also need to understand the importance of students’ sense of themselves as learners and as members of learning communities. If we don't address school climate, if we don't acknowledge the different cultural backgrounds of different groups of students, we're not going to get them to where we want them to be even if we have high standards. I think we're finally combining the two sides of this equation, academic rigor with attention to social and emotional wellbeing. And there is emerging new research to support the effectiveness of combining strategies. That’s where we need to go and not jump back in our bunkers.

Tom, the education sector is one of the most challenging for those seeking to have a positive social impact in their work, be it direct service, advocacy, or policymaking. Can you tell us a bit about your work in the education sector over the years, as a journalist, a writer, a scholar, a professor, and a think tank founder and director? What drives your passion?

Toch:  I got into education pretty early in my career.  I turned down an opportunity to go to law school to be a teacher for a year and then found my way into journalism. I ended up writing about education for 20 years, both in newspapers, magazines, and books. Then, I got into the think tank world. But it’s all the same work from different platforms.  I was struck early on, when I was still in my 20s, when I was traveling around the country doing research for a book, by the extent to which issues of race, class, meritocracy, and opportunity all converged in the nation’s schoolhouses. I got to see how that played out in the Florida panhandle, East Harlem, the hill country outside of Austin, lumber country in Everett, Washington, and a lot of places in between.

It was astonishing to me how America’s very different aspirations for different students, depending on what they look like and where they come from, played out in education. The mission of FutureEd, to increase the educational opportunities and outcomes for traditionally underserved students, is really same work I’ve done for a long time. It’s interesting and it's rewarding, although the longer one is in a field, any field, I guess, the humbler one needs to be about one's individual ability to have an impact. But ideas do matter, and it's been a privilege to be part of the conversation.