A total of nearly $200 billion in federal relief funding for school systems’ pandemic recoveries, provided across three pieces of legislation in the past year, brings enormous opportunities — alongside challenges to spend the money efficiently, appropriately and in ways that avoid a funding cliff in the future, said education experts during a Tuesday webinar hosted by the Southern Regional Education Board and FutureEd.
School administrators, along with education stakeholders, should thoughtfully plan how to spend the relief money in ways that will achieve intended goals, use evidence-based practices and address the needs of students most impacted by the pandemic, the panelists said.
At the state level, leaders should make sure state funding for education is maintained and does not disproportionately impact high-poverty school districts, said the panelists, who also recommended states provide spending guidance to local districts as school systems manage the large amounts of aid.
While there are spending priorities for immediate needs school systems still face one year into the pandemic, such as the purchase of personal protective equipment and devices for learning, district leaders should consult with stakeholders to set goals for expenditures, in addition to developing procedures for monitoring and accountability of those funds, said the panelists.
“You need to really have a thoughtful plan for how you've identified what your needs are,” said Stephen Pruitt, president of SREB. For example he said, if a district wants to buy 500 tablets, it should also factor in the “total cost of ownership,” such as expenses for maintenance, storage and professional development. Otherwise, he said, “basically you’ve bought 500 paperweights.”
Pruitt also warned that as districts consider spending priorities, they also take into account potential needs for funding sustainability for those investments.
“You know, one of the things we saw in the funding that came after the Great Recession is people made a lot of immediate decisions that, eventually, there were ramifications for after the money ran out,” said Pruitt, who added SREB will soon release guidance on spending strategies and sustainability.
Funds for the recovery of lost instructional time should also undergo careful consideration. That starts with data to inform decision-makers on who needs support, what types of supports are needed and what evidence-based interventions would be most effective and equitable, the panelists said.
“As much as we desperately need that funding, we also want to be able to spend it well, and on what we spend those dollars is critically important. And spending it in mind with the equity levers that we know are going to drive impact for the communities who have deeply felt both the health pandemic and the anti-racism is really important,” said Denise Forte, senior vice president for partnership and engagement at The Education Trust.
Forte also suggested school leaders understand the benefits and limitations of certain initiatives, like whether interventions are effective for all age groups or just a certain grade span.
Additionally, to ensure equity in initiatives, school systems should be reaching out to community partners who focus on the homeless, English learners, foster care and other underserved populations to help develop effective and sustainable programs, Forte said.
State education systems also hold responsibility for supporting K-12 systems navigating this unusual budget moment through the timely release of stimulus funding, as well through allocation accountability measures, said Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. Specifically, Rosenblum said OESE plans to release guidance on maintenance of effort and maintenance of equity provisions from the American Rescue Plan in the coming weeks.