Three things state education agencies could be doing right now
President Biden’s federal stimulus bills provide a substantial infusion of funding for K-12 education at a time when the money is sorely needed. Many districts will receive over $5,000 per student, which can be spent over the next three years. While these investments are critical, immediate long-term planning should commence to ensure states efficiently utilize resources in alignment to student needs.
The stimulus money should promote fiscal equity across school districts because it is allocated through the Title I formula, so states will disperse more money to districts serving higher-poverty student populations. For those districts receiving the greatest increases, the extra funds will represent at least a 10 percent increase per year over three years on average.
Meanwhile, districts are facing one of the greatest challenges in recent memory — reopening schools to students and educators who have spent over a year in quarantine. At this critical juncture, state education agencies have an important role for ensuring the reopening runs efficiently and equitably. As education researchers, we work with state education agencies and national organizations on policy analysis and guidance for school districts. Here we offer three key action steps state education agencies can take to support districts during this difficult time:
Engage in long-term planning and evaluation processes. This time last year, about half of all states required districts to submit reopening plans for the current year that spelled out instructional modalities and COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Districts would now benefit from support with longer-term planning, particularly for federal stimulus spending. State policies could require districts to assess whether the funds reached students disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and what impact the investments have on student outcomes.
Federal law holds states accountable for operating effective education systems, but districts are accountable to their local community. Some states have required that districts conduct student needs assessments as part of the reopening process. Districts still have time to conduct surveys, focus groups or interviews that may help provide additional insights around student and family needs.
Provide direct guidance on how to spend federal education funding. The American Rescue Plan Act, the largest of the three stimulus bills, calls for districts to spend at least 20 percent of funds on “learning recovery” such as after-school tutoring and summer programs, but districts have significant fiscal flexibility beyond this requirement. States need to provide guidance to district leaders through direct communication because they may not be aware of this level of flexibility, especially since federal education funding typically has far more strings attached.
District spending decisions are complicated by the fact that the federal funds are temporary, and must be spent down over three years, by October 2024. Large investments in new staff may therefore create a fiscal cliff for the 2024-2025 school year, when districts would no longer receive stimulus funds.
To avoid this fiscal cliff, states might encourage districts to invest a portion of federal funds in capital and building improvements. According to federal code regarding grants to states, federal grants can be invested in capital improvements including building infrastructure with prior state agency approval.
In many under-resourced urban and rural districts, building infrastructure is aging, which places additional unfair cost pressures that are less prevalent in more recently constructed suburban district buildings. A well-functioning HV/AC system, accessible elevators and windows that open and close are sound investments that can last 30 years. Washington state’s education agency, for example, has already directly emailed districts with this guidance and encouraged district finance directors to seek additional support. Moreover, several recent studies link capital improvements to positive impacts on learning years after the initial investment.
Invest in data systems and evaluation. Most state education agencies contribute to or house a statewide longitudinal data system. These data warehouses were supported through several Obama administration programs, and federal grants provide continuing support. But many state data systems are underdeveloped, despite the substantial array of education data that is already collected. Poor data systems make it difficult to evaluate education programs or assess whether all students receive adequate and equitable resources. States can invest a portion of federal funds toward strengthening their data systems.
Additional investments could improve data security and access, link supplementary non-education datasets (e.g., from health or workforce), make the data more accessible to school districts and streamline data sharing agreements for researchers. Already, many states have developed processes for tracking how districts spend federal stimulus funds.
States may also consider new data collection and dissemination efforts. Information about educator and student physical and mental health could provide important evidence about both individual needs and program impacts.
As part of this effort, state education agencies can also develop or strengthen dashboards on COVID-19 cases, vaccination rates among students and staff, and updated metrics assessing behavior, engagement, health and learning outcomes.
In sum, state education agencies can provide much-needed support to district leaders who are facing unprecedented challenges that will continue through the 2021-2022 school year and beyond. State efforts have the potential of leveraging stimulus funds to create more equitable public education systems across the U.S.
David S. Knight is an assistant 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.