How to spend $122 billion and show something for it

Federal money is pouring into school districts in Georgia; experts say to use it wisely
Education experts say states and school districts ought to think carefully and creatively on how they will spend the $122 billion in funds coming their way from the American Rescue Plan.

Credit: AJC FILE

Credit: AJC FILE

Education experts say states and school districts ought to think carefully and creatively on how they will spend the $122 billion in funds coming their way from the American Rescue Plan.

A temptation with a sudden pile of cash — as we’ve seen with the $1,400 stimulus checks — is to rush out and spend it.

That worries education experts who say states and school districts ought to think carefully and creatively on how they will spend the $122 billion coming their way from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan to speed up recovery from the pandemic’s effects. Georgia’s share of the federal largesse is $4.25 billion, of which $3.8 billion goes to school districts that have some leeway in how they spend the money.

“It’s human nature to say let’s go buy something,” said Stephen L. Pruitt, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board. But, for example, if school districts bought 500 iPads without factoring in the cost of training and ongoing maintenance, Pruitt said, “Then, basically you have bought 500 paperweights.”

Pruitt made his comments on a panel Tuesday about the unprecedented infusion of federal funding and how to get the most out of the money. The webinar was sponsored by SREB and FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

In advising its 16 member states including Georgia, SREB is recommending a practical perspective and an avoidance of silver bullets and quick fixes. “There is not going to be something you can buy off the shelf for this. I always say be careful of silver bullets because that means there is a werewolf around as that’s when you need a silver bullet.”

Panelist Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary of the U.S Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, said 20% of the money going to districts has to be spent mitigating the pandemic’s toll on academic performance and student social and emotional well-being. Two-thirds of the funding has already been released to districts for immediate needs, including summer learning programs, he said.

Rosenblum said districts are being required to use “evidence-based” strategies and programs to help their students. But before districts decide on strategies, they ought to ascertain where their students are and what they need, said Denise Forte, senior vice president for partnerships and engagement for Education Trust, a nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps affecting students of color and students from low-income families.

“We have to have the data first and we have to learn where the disparities are from that data,” said Forte. “We are not going to spend this money well and know that we have impact unless we start with data. Let’s try to get a handle on who has been missing from classrooms, how many times students have logged in and for how long.”

Pruitt agreed. “I know right now everybody is saying they don’t want to see a test this year. But I am of the belief that standardized testing is one of the biggest flashlights we have to provide information on how children are performing.” At both the state and local levels, the results of student assessments ought to be filtered through an equity lens to guide better instruction for the most at-risk kids, said Pruitt.

While the U.S. Department of Education is requiring states to administer standardized tests this year despite the pandemic and school closures, the agency has eased some accountability levers, including penalties for failing to have 95% student participation. Georgia has also blunted the impact of its annual Milestones tests by reducing the weight to 0.01% of students’ final grades.

Beyond data, the panelists said schools also need staff, more teachers, counselors, psychologists and social workers, to help children traumatized by the past year. Forte said among the proven interventions to complete what Pruitt described as “unfinished learning” is intensive tutoring, which works well for younger students in very small groups.

“All of this is going to need great people to surround our kids,” said Forte. “We need to make sure we have innovative staffing models.”

Pruitt highlighted Oklahoma, which is hiring staff to go into homes where students fell off the radar during remote learning to provide short-term support and reconnect them to their school. States, he said, must accept “that we cannot have any more invisible students in our buildings.”

Forte said her advocacy organization believes people will be key to recovery for students. “We think we need more great adults in classrooms. Ultimately, if we are going to do it right, students who need the most support should be getting that support, and we are going to need staffing to do that.”