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US public education systems facing a crisis point

(File: Getty)

Districts are fast approaching a deadline to spend what remains of their federal stimulus funds, but schools have not rebounded from the pandemic. Many schools are wrestling with a tight labor market and dealing with staffing challenges, and students and staff are reporting especially high rates of mental health stress and burnout. Schools are still facing safety concerns, and outdated ventilation systems remain in place as funds run out. 

Federal stimulus was initially allocated to school districts to address the immediate challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress required districts to allocate a portion of funds to address academic “learning loss,” but policymakers did not know at that time how long the effects of the pandemic would linger.  

As public schools continue to deal with pandemic-related challenges, the U.S. Department of Education and Congress need to take three critical steps to support the nation’s public schools.  

1. Provide school districts with flexibility and accountability. While most federal stimulus or “ESSER” funds had relatively few strings attached, districts would benefit from additional autonomy over how and when funds are spent. Under the current policy, all funds need to be obligated by Sept. 30, 2024. This may be a difficult timeline for districts that initially struggled to spend down ESSER funds amid labor challenges and broader global supply chain issues. Providing districts with additional time or allowing them to submit spending plans instead of expending all funds, or simply extending the September 2024 deadline would assist district leaders immensely.  

In addition, the Department of Education (ED) should ramp up data reporting requirements for all local education agencies and charter schools to include basic standardized accounting of stimulus funds from the 2022-23 school year forward. District and state education agencies should also have the necessary systems in place to monitor outcomes associated with ESSER investments. Many states and districts are already collecting this data, though data collection mechanisms and variables are not standardized across states. ED could hold districts accountable for collecting this data and reporting it through standardized forms. Better knowledge of how ESSER funds were directed over time, and how student outcomes changed, may help inform district decision-making moving forward. 

2. Invest in infrastructure. Despite some accounts of districts using ESSER funds to improve physical infrastructure, reports show much of the money has been spent on personal protective equipment and instructional investments such as student tutoring, summer and after school programs, and teacher professional development. But many students attend schools with aging heating and air ventilation systems.  

The problem of poor physical infrastructure stems in part from inequitable state school finance systems. While states have made substantial progress over the past 50 years to close funding gaps between rich and poor districts, most of those efforts have focused on operating expenditures, rather than capital spending. In many states, new school building construction and building improvement are financed completely through local bonds or special levies, with limited state funds. Disparities in local property values across districts – themselves a product of racial covenants and redlining – mean that some districts generate far more in property tax revenue. Schools were largely left out of the climate bill, which might have provided special funds for building renovation. Congress should authorize additional federal funds to support 21st century infrastructure for K-12 public schools.  

Districts also need ongoing federal support for technology. Many districts used federal stimulus funds to invest in technology, such as computer labs or one-to-one device programs (where each student is assigned a laptop or tablet), and those products will soon reach their replacement cycles.  

3. Support teachers. Many schools are facing acute staffing challenges, but a smaller subset have dealt with chronic teacher shortages for decades. The teacher labor market is both localized and specialized, meaning shortages in one school district or subject area may not exist in another. That said, the Department of Education can play a key role in addressing staffing challenges by expanding apprenticeship opportunities and better targeting incentive programs such as loan forgiveness.  

Without these investments, districts will face a fiscal cliff as they spend their federal stimulus funding. The American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March 2021, provided historic levels of federal funding for schools, totaling $130 billion. Together with two prior bills, the CARES Act and the CRRSA Act, this funding tripled the typical annual federal amount of about $60 billion per year. Investments from the first two stimulus bills, ESSER I and II, were likely a factor in some moderately improved academic outcomes this year.  

One misleading narrative that permeates education policy discussions is that additional resources do not improve student outcomes. Some districts have low test scores but high per-pupil spending, the argument goes, so adequate funding must not be the answer. Another version of this argument claims that spending has increased over the past three decades at a faster pace than educational outcomes. These anecdotal or correlational arguments are interesting, but they do not inform the broader policy discussion about whether additional resources would improve outcomes. Unfortunately, these anecdotes or simple correlations between spending and student outcomes still surface as legitimate analyses even among informed individuals.  

To support public education systems during this critical moment, the federal government must act. Providing school districts with additional fiscal autonomy, investments in infrastructure, and teacher supports would help stabilize school systems and place the incoming students on the best path forward. 

David S. Knight is an associate professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington. David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin. 

Tags federal stimulus funding

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