Federal billions are coming. How will Georgia use them?

Georgia will get 10 times what it received through Race to the Top to reopen schools and catch up students

Education advocates rejoiced when Georgia won a coveted Race to the Top Grant in 2010, galvanizing reform efforts in the state with an infusion of $400 million in federal funds. Under President Joe Biden’s new COVID-19 stimulus package, Georgia schools will get 10 times that amount, $4.2 billion.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act allots $122 billion for K-12 public education, $2,440 for each of the nation’s 50 million students. (Governors will get $2.75 billion to assist private schools that serve low-income students.) The federal relief will support state efforts to reopen K-12 schools safely this month and equitably expand opportunity for students who need it most, according to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

“You’ve got some walking around money with this to do some things, and you ought to use that fact to bring people on board to get some things done,” said former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen on a panel Wednesday sponsored by Bellwether Education Partners on whether states will use this federal infusion to transform American education.

“This is a huge amount of money. States are not good at spending a huge amount of money in a short period of time,” said fellow panelist Ken Wagner, former Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

A tug of war may develop over this unprecedented tsunami of federal education dollars. How much should go to catching up students on what they missed due to the pandemic, and how much should go to reimagining how we fundamentally do education in America?

We have already seen school choice advocates in many states including Georgia seize on COVID-spurred school closures to push expansion of voucher programs and tax credits for tutoring and home schooling.

Unlike 2009 when the Great Recession shriveled jobs and spending and federal stimulus became a lifeline, many state budgets weathered the coronavirus pandemic. CARES Act unemployment supplements allowed people to keep buying and state treasuries to keep collecting sales tax. A Harvard analysis found Georgia consumer spending rose by 2.8% as of mid-February, compared to January 2020.

That means many school districts, while not flush with cash, are also not rationing pencils and furloughing staff as a result of deep state cuts. Georgia’s better-than-expected economy led the General Assembly, with the governor’s urging, to pass a budget for the rest of fiscal 2021, which ends June 30, that restores about 60% of what lawmakers cut from basic K-12 school funding last year.

Still, districts shoulder new expenses from the virus, which shuttered schools a year ago and shifted classes online. Earlier education stimulus funds helped underwrite computers, teacher training, broadband, protective gear, and sanitizers. This new bounty sets a larger and more toilsome target — reopen schools and help the students who lost ground both academically and mentally.

The American Rescue Act is not overly prescriptive in how the money can be spent, although districts must apply 20% of their share to learning recovery using what the law calls “evidence-based interventions.” States can use the relief to avoid staff layoffs, hire teachers, nurses, and custodial staff, meet social, emotional and academic needs of students and pay for summer, after-school, and other extended learning and enrichment programs.

“This pandemic has taken an extraordinary toll on students, parents, educators, and schools, and we know that our schools, students, and communities need help now to reopen safely and quickly, and to stay open,” said Secretary of Education Cardona. “These funds from the American Rescue Plan and the extraordinary steps the department is taking to get these resources to states quickly will allow schools to invest in mitigation strategies to get students back in the classroom and stay there, and address the many impacts this pandemic has had on students — especially those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”

At a press conference Wednesday, Cardona said he hopes to release funds this month. “We know that schools are needing that to not only prepare for reopening now, but also to plan ahead. We know that when our students come back, they’re going to need more social, emotional support. We know that our schools have to be designed to meet the needs of the students after they return after a pandemic.”

As this money reaches Georgia, education leaders ought to reflect on the hits and misses of Race to the Top, an Obama White House initiative that awarded a total of $4.1 billion to 18 states and the District of Columbia. Later evaluations found promised reforms never gelled because states attempted complex changes in a compressed timeline.

While education advocates still debate the impact of Race to the Top, there is general agreement the federal timeframes proved untenable given the ambitious agendas undertaken by states, including tying teacher evaluations to student test scores on state exams. For example, Georgia struggled with how to rate the 70% of teachers in courses without standardized tests, devising the much maligned and since discarded SLOs (student learning objectives) that demanded extensive pre and post tests and fueled parent frustration over instructional time lost to testing.

Districts will have a lot of new federal dollars — for a while. They ought to avoid the pitfalls that come with relief funding, including launching programs and staff expansions they can’t sustain or setting so many lofty goals they end up with lots of aspirations and few accomplishments.