Smith & Travers: How to Maximize the Return on Investment from the $200 Billion in Federal Education Relief Funding

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The roughly $200 billion injection of funds into public schools through the two most recent stimulus packages provides educators with a realistic shot at responding to the mammoth impact of the pandemic on America’s youth. However, before the ink on the American Rescue Plan was dry, misguided assertions about wise use of these funds in schools began to surface.

In our roles as a superintendent and as an adviser on strategic resource use to district leaders, we feel immense pressure to maximize return on investment and do right by students and their families. The soaring needs of students, especially Black, Latino and Indigenous students, students from low-income families and students with disabilities, demand exceptional stewardship of these dollars.

But what should policymakers and the public expect to see from wisely spent funds? To start, it means not spending it all at once. One problematic assertion heard during relief bill negotiations was that if schools don’t spend it all right away, they don’t really need it. Not only is the rate of expenditure a lagging indicator, a year of instructional disruptions will take multiple years to recover from. Strategic resource use will mean responding to the urgency of the moment and also building towards an improved schooling experience that lasts.

For example, schools could create new teacher leader roles that enable highly effective educators to extend their impact, while others provide more one-on-one or small group instruction. Districts should stretch out their funds to build these durable, systemic changes.

Other policymakers assert that if student achievement is not massively, immediately improved, it will prove that schools wasted money or don’t need it. While we agree that investing to accelerate learning should be the focus of any school’s strategy, there are two pieces of context to consider.

First, the impact of this pandemic goes far beyond math and reading proficiency. The social and emotional needs of students are on a scale previously unseen. Many students are now disengaged entirely. School leaders must consider ways to support the whole child, and measure their effectiveness in doing so.

Second, learning increases must be gauged relative to both where students are now, and where they were pre-pandemic. Schools have made great progress in raising educational standards in the past decade. New baseline measurements, however they’re collected, broken out by student group, grade and school, would help educators allocate resources to where they are needed most and inform ongoing continuous improvement efforts to meet those standards.

We are also concerned with the notion this is a massive amount of money relative to student need. It’s true that some districts are expected to receive from one-third to over half of a typical year’s worth of total funding. However, the magnitude of need this funding is intended to address is also significant. Many students will have to accelerate their learning twice as fast as their usual pace. In that context, these dollars spread out over multiple years does not seem so large.

Finally, we have been told of pressure on districts to spend dollars only on direct services for students. This is shortsighted. Strategic school districts should also devote funding to critical areas such as professional development to build staff capacity and creation of new structures such as revamped schedules, staffing, compensation models and community partnerships that sustain the best innovations when the stimulus money runs out.

What should policymakers and school communities look for? We’re encouraged to see some preliminary district plans that connect spending to specific learning acceleration strategies, differentiate investments based on need, manage away from ‘fiscal cliffs’ and reflect community perspectives, particularly those most impacted by the pandemic. To improve the return on investment of these plans, we propose the following measurements that reflect the full breadth of investment objectives over time:

  • Safe, in-person schooling
  • Student engagement and wellness
  • Enrollment and attendance
  • Teacher professional growth, rewarding working conditions and retention
  • Academic growth, measured against current and pre-COVID baselines
  • A focus on equity for all the above for students most impacted by the pandemic

How can policymakers help? By listening to educators and thinking both short and long term. Leaders are right to demand careful accounting of this once-in-a-generation opportunity for children. Supporting educators in making transformational changes to school and system design that will serve students now and in the future will provide the maximum return on investment.

Jack R. Smith is superintendent of Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools and chair of the Large Countywide & Suburban District Consortium. Jonathan Travers is a managing partner at Education Resource Strategies, a national nonprofit that partners with district, school and state leaders to transform how they use resources, and the leader of the consortium’s chief financial officer network.

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