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Analysis: What taxpayers should look for as schools spend first $13B in federal COVID aid

Ian Rosenblum | October 28, 2022

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government has provided an unprecedented $190 billion in desperately needed funds to help schools return to and sustain in-person learning, keep students and educators safe, and address the deep and wide-ranging impacts of COVID-19 — from academics to student well-being, and everything in between.

States and school districts had until the end of September to commit the first tranche of funds — totaling just over $13 billion – that was approved in March 2020. They’ll have the next two years to spend the rest.

Two questions should be top of mind now that the first spending window has closed: What should taxpayers, families and the broader public look for now? And what should they look forward to?

The first one is easy: Now that the Sept. 30 deadline has passed, the public should reasonably expect every school system to demonstrate funding accountability and transparency by making clear how it spent these first vital resources (typically to meet the most urgent, immediate needs dating to the beginning of the pandemic), how students benefited as a result and how it plans to spend the rest.

The second question is both more complicated and more important.

With the fourth school year of the pandemic now underway, and despite educators’ often-herculean efforts, the work remains extraordinarily challenging:

The latest NAEP results show that the nation’s students lost two decades of progress in reading and math for 9-year-olds from 2020 to 2022, with the worst impact on children who were experiencing academic challenges before COVID.

Enrollment is declining in many school systems across the country, exacerbating earlier trends and risking instability for already-exhausted communities.

On top of all of this, the political environment is more polarized than ever, tearing communities apart, doing irreparable damage to children and their teachers, and making school and district leadership — which is challenging on a good day — nearly impossible. Research by my colleague Julia Rafal-Baer shows that recent leadership turnover has impacted districts enrolling more than a quarter of the nation’s students, and it’s hard to imagine the political climate isn’t playing a role.

The next two years of federal pandemic recovery funding will both be impacted by and, in turn, impact these crosscurrents. Having had the opportunity to work in the federal government leading the implementation of these funds and now working with colleagues supporting states and districts using them, it’s clear that this is the time for big bets in the nation’s education system.

If the first tranche of the federal pandemic recovery funds was about stopping the bleeding, the next phases need to demonstrate that schools and districts know how to make the patient healthy.

So, looking out over the next two years, what the nation has learned so far — and what leading states and school districts are already hard at work doing — can suggest whether the country is heading in the right direction.

First, look for change. Students certainly need more — more school counselors and nurses and more learning time, for example — but they also desperately need different. Getting real results, especially for students who have long been underserved, requires implementing clear, coherent, evidence-based and systemwide strategies, not just individual programs. Support for educators is imperative, but success cannot only rely on a single teacher in a classroom.

Second, focus on action (or inaction). Whether a particular community prefers the term “learning loss” versus “accelerated learning,” or “mental health” versus “social-emotional support” versus “student well-being,” the thing to look for is whether districts are addressing those very real priorities: ensuring that every student can achieve at grade level, meeting the needs of the whole child and directing the most resources to the children and schools with the greatest needs. If that’s not happening, terminology is not the problem.

Third, schools are part of communities, and funding needs to reflect that reality. Almost every district priority can be more successful with the support of community partners who can be part of creative solutions, including to address school staffing crunches. Schools can use their funding to engage neighborhood-based organizations in various areas, among them early learning, health services, after-school and summer programs, early and lasting career exploration, employer internships and apprenticeships, dual enrollment at local colleges and other partnerships that make learning relevant and rigorous. This is especially true as schools work to re-engage students who have been driven out of the education system and to reverse glaring chronic absenteeism rates.

Fourth, build stronger partnerships between school and home. One potential antidote to politicization of the relationship between families and schools is to do more to involve parents and caregivers and to strengthen family partnerships. Funding can pay for family-focused technology that makes communication and participation easier; outreach workers and home visitation programs; resources for parents and caregivers to be partners in implementing the science of reading at home, and translators and interpreters to ensure that all parents can interact with their children’s schools.

Fifth, if states and districts don’t tell their story, no one will. Communities need to see how resources are making a difference for students and families. That means building central office capacity to be able to consistently share real stories of impact alongside regularly updated and readily understandable data on students’ learning needs (and other opportunity gaps) and how they’re being urgently addressed.

The best bet for avoiding a fiscal cliff is not to revert to timid spending decisions. Just the opposite: A brighter future requires boldly showing how the educational and political cost of going back to the days of underfunding schools would be worse than providing the long-term resources students truly need.

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