5 principles that should drive Boston’s enormous federal school aid

Transparency, proximity, equity, specificity, and boldness should be the watchwords

IN APRIL President Biden announced a $1.8 trillion plan to support children and families, on the heels of stimulus checks issued back in February. But this latest relief did not come in the form of checks deposited into the bank accounts of families: This stimulus spending came in the form of an enormous investment in education to support the reopening of in-person learning and address the academic and socio-emotional impacts of the pandemic.

How large is this check? On the national scale, the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund — ESSER, for short — is as much as the United States spent to rebuild Europe after World War II, when adjusted for inflation. Massachusetts has already received over $1 billion in ESSER funds that first became available last spring, with another $1.83 billion on its way from this latest round of federal aid. Boston alone is expected to receive close to $435 million in total ESSER funding, a third of its annual school budget.

In Boston, that works out to almost $9,000 more per student.

It’s the kind of windfall we’re not used to in education. With this influx of federal aid, the education funding debate isn’t about whether schools’ needs can be met. Rather, the $400 million dollar question Boston must now answer is exactly how should this money be spent?

As with other federal funding, school districts typically draw down federal funds through a granting process, with the state serving as a pass-through of sorts. Municipal leaders, school committees, and other stakeholders have a limited role — or sometimes no role at all. Superintendents and school district leaders can complete this with limited reporting requirements or active oversight.

This Thursday is the first meeting of the Return, Recover, Reimagine Commission formed to “advise” Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius on where to direct investments. But critical gaps in representation remain across its 32-member appointments, most importantly when it comes to educator, family, and student representation, considering students are the direct beneficiaries of these dollars. The lack of any public health representation also raises some questions, given the bulk of “Return” efforts are focused on health and safety.

We owe children, families, and educators everything they need to recover what’s been lost and re-center on what matters. To do so requires an intentional approach to ensure this once-in-generation funding meets those needs.

Every school, classroom, and child has unique needs as in-person learning resumes across the Commonwealth. Rather than prescribing exactly how these dollars should be spent, school and district leaders must leverage a re-centering framework to guide their decision making, grounded in these five values:

Transparency: The magnitude and gravity of this investment demands public input: Families, students, educators, and taxpayers have a right to know how these funds will be distributed.  Massachusetts’ recent Student Opportunity Act provides a reliable blueprint for ensuring all major stakeholders — city leaders, school committees, superintendents, principals and teachers, families, and community groups — contribute to plans to spend additional state funds. The billions of federal dollars flowing into Massachusetts require a true public hearing, and it’s incumbent on school districts to create a public process to share their visions for these funds and account for spending.

Proximity: Teachers and principals know their school communities’ and students’ needs best, and families entrust them every day with meeting those needs. As much as possible, leaders most proximal to students must be given the budgetary autonomy to allocate those federal funds to their classrooms and students. We should trust educators to support children’s academic, social, and emotional recovery, and provide them with the training and resources to do it.

Equity: The last 13 months have impacted some children and some communities more than others — and disproportionately so among those most marginalized and under-represented. Those most impacted by the pandemic need more to recover. The needs of our marginalized students must come first, and schools and districts need a clear sense of the scale and scope of those needs. Assessing students is not a distraction; the data sets a baseline to ensure resources are equitably distributed.

Specificity: When thinking about how to spend this money, teachers, students, and families should know what will be concretely different and improved in schools both a year from now and when federal dollars end in 2023. Given ESSER’s unprecedented scale, district spending plans and strategies must be both urgent and decisive — even in lieu of state guidance — as the immediacy of the pandemic’s effects continue to be felt in classrooms and school communities. Decisions and planning must not be left to languish. Operationally, ESSER’s funding availability is time-bound. The education sector isn’t known for its speed, and if spending plans and decisions become mired in bureaucratic processes, districts — and ultimately, students — could miss out on the benefits of ESSER’s generational opportunity.

Boldness: As urgent as the need is to return to more in-person learning, the pandemic has granted the education sector a rare opportunity to rethink systems and structures that haven’t fully served all students. Funding now exists to test bold theories and ideas for education grounded in research and best practice. These ideas must not be constrained by a temptation to return to a known, but failing, status quo. From reconsidering the structure and length of the school day and the school calendar, to what schoolwork happens in-classroom versus anywhere else on a device, innovative policy shifts — such as moving high school start times to match teenagers’ brain development — aren’t merely novel; they can dramatically improve student outcomes.

No one could have predicted the pandemic or its impacts on education. In the wake of disruption and tragedy, we have an extraordinary opportunity to do more than reject or prop up a broken status quo. Our schools have the chance to build something new entirely that serves and benefits every child in Boston — and not just a privileged few. It’s the opportunity Boston can’t afford to miss.

Will Austin is the CEO and founder of Boston Schools Fund, a non-profit advancing educational equity in Boston.

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