Roza: Without Clear Rules, There’s No Way to Judge How School Relief Funds Are Being Spent. Setting Student Progress as a North Star Would Be a Game Changer

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When it’s all said and done, how should ESSER investments be judged? That depends on what we hope to get from the $123 billion pumped into public schools. Here’s the problem: No end goal, no focused objective, no common yardstick has ever been attached to this mammoth federal investment. 

The ESSER money lacks a North Star. 

Metaphorically speaking, a North Star is the mission statement. It’s a fixed destination to aim for even as the world changes.

The murkiness dates to when the American Rescue Plan was signed nearly a year ago. Language in the law reads like a laundry list of 18 broad categories of allowable activities. Taken literally, anything a district would normally spend money on is fair game. 

For many districts, ESSER funds were more than they could spend on COVID-related needs. In the early weeks after its passage, the Biden administration emphasized getting students back in the classroom. But by last fall, the nation’s schools had reopened for in-person learning, with 98 percent of the money still unspent. That left districts with over $120 billion in highly flexible ESSER funding and no focused mission to guide spending decisions.

Eventually, the Department of Education’s suggestions went beyond its initial guidance “to prevent, prepare for and respond to COVID.” Federal FAQs coaxed leaders to spend more broadly, “to emerge stronger post-pandemic.” And to address crime. And fix leaky roofs.

It’s become hard to see a forest for the trees.

Not surprisingly, analysts and journalists started checking on what was looking more and more like an expensive experiment: What happens when the feds give historic sums to districts with few restrictions and no clear ask in return? 

With nothing else to measure, the focus landed on measuring what districts bought with the money. Early reports surfaced generous teacher bonuses, eyebrow-raising expenditures on sports fields and electric buses, rebates to local taxpayers and the occasional plan that offered little to offset learning losses that students had accrued during the pandemic.

Then came calls for more accountability. At a November congressional hearing, concerns about how districts were using these funds came from both sides of the aisle. Virginia Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott wanted evidence that districts were “using this funding responsibly” and “holding up their end of the bargain.”

But there never had been much of a “bargain.” At the hearing, Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten explained that districts were tracking spending, but, “the kinds of things that they need are decided school by school, state by state.” 

This has all been confusing for state education agencies whose job it is to monitor compliance. Some have resorted to advising districts that what matters is not what was purchased, but why. Districts have been told that outdoor playground equipment is “allowable” if they’ll simply proclaim it is for social distancing, making leaders craft creative (if eyeroll-worthy) justifications. 

But “allowability” is a distraction. Districts need to focus on student learning. It is indisputable that students have fallen behind in math and reading during the pandemic. While outcomes are worse for those who are poor and non-white, there are learning gaps in all student demographic groups. 

A well-designed North Star could put every leader on a mission to remedy those gaps.

Shifting the focus from what districts are purchasing to what progress students are making would be a game changer. First and foremost, it’s a shift that requires school systems to start tracking and regularly checking whether they’re making headway, and for which students.

There’s no need to wait for federal leaders to establish the North Star. A state leader could outline goals and create mechanisms for districts to track progress. A district leader could do the same for its schools. A principal for the school. 

Imagine a North Star that established the following four priorities related to student learning:

1. Reading, grades K-5

2. Math, all grades

3. High schoolers on track to graduate

4. Student attendance and engagement 

Then imagine that states and districts started measuring progress month by month. 

Surfacing baseline figures would be painful at first. Kids are behind and have a long way to go. But soon after, we would start to see progress, learning what’s working and where plans need to shift.

With a North Star, financial flexibility isn’t a problem; it’s an asset. It means worrying less about spending specifications (even that 20 percent of the funds are earmarked for learning loss) and more about whether students are learning. Districts need flexibility to try things that can work. And they need the flexibility to pivot when labor shortages or Omicron changes everything. We’ll know what’s working when we look at the numbers.

Narrowing our goals doesn’t mean abandoning efforts to address mental health, ventilation or other priorities, but rather that they’re all connected to the big (measurable) mission of getting students up to speed on their learning. Yes, make buildings safe so students are present and learning. Yes, help students regain their emotional balance, while ensuring that corresponds to increases in attendance, homework completion and active participation in school. Having that North Star clearly communicates to everybody, from the superintendent to the classroom teacher and counselor, what they should pay attention to; what matters. 

None of this would need to work as a gotcha. Measuring and tracking outcomes doesn’t just let districts pivot when things aren’t working as intended — it gives staff and students alike a much-needed chance to celebrate progress, even if they’re still way behind where they want to be. This is the way to learn what works. This is how we learn from each other. And this is how to ensure that the money helps kids. It tells them: We’re here for you. We’ll figure this out.

Dr. Marguerite Roza is research professor at Georgetown University and director of the Edunomics Lab, a research center exploring and modeling complex education finance decisions to inform policy and practice. She leads the McCourt School of Public Policy’s Certificate in Education Finance, which equips participants with practical skills in strategic fiscal management, policy analysis, and leadership. 

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