Schools flush with cash, but need better plan on how to spend it

Feds should give them more time; state should help communities pool information

IN 2010, a young Mark Zuckerberg partnered with a rising political star, then-Mayor Cory Booker, to donate $100 million dollars to Newark Public Schools. The idea was that a massive infusion of wealth could fundamentally alter learning within the community. New money led to modest change but did little to address major challenges in schools. Roughly a decade later, even before the onset of the COVID pandemic, two-thirds of young students in Newark were unable to read at grade level and more than a quarter of all students were chronically absent from school.

We all know money is critical to improving our schools. But, as we saw in Newark, money alone isn’t enough. How money is spent also matters. Long-term, large-scale improvements in education require coordinated, community-wide efforts and well-thought-out plans.

Massachusetts schools have now received an unprecedented influx of resources. Through federal Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding, the Commonwealth’s education system has received $2.9 billion, with the vast majority going directly to districts. Now it’s up to districts to invest wisely and avoid the fate of Newark.

This is proving to be a challenge. While almost all of the first round of funding (ESSER I) has been spent, 41 percent of the second round (ESSER II) and 83 percent of the third round (ESSER III) remain unused, leaving schools and districts with both unprecedented opportunity and burden to allocate and spend strategically.

My organization has spent the last several months tracking how schools are spending this money and working with districts on how they can best invest funds. We’ve seen firsthand the challenges they’re facing. While schools have reopened, the trauma of the last few years is ever-present in classrooms and communities. School leaders and staff continue to face daily crises, a result of staffing shortages, lost learning time, and growing mental health needs. Many potential solutions require hiring new staff and, like in many industries right now, there just aren’t enough people to hire. How can district and school leaders think about overhauling our education system when they need to address the urgent challenges of today, tomorrow, and next week?

To be clear, urgent action is needed. Massachusetts students just posted their lowest reading and math scores in 19 years on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (often called the “nation’s report card”). But acting with urgency doesn’t mean spending money quickly. It means mobilizing at all levels to spend money smartly. With too much pressure comes poor decisions. We’ve already observed some schools making impulse purchases on things like one-time professional development sessions or unvetted curricular materials that will have little or no effect. Districts need time, guidance, and understanding to make big decisions, and every level of the system has a role to play in that.

From the federal level, districts need more time. The US Department of Education is giving districts until September 30, 2024, to spend COVID relief funds. For many districts, that just isn’t enough time to do the work required to spend these funds in an effective way. Amid a growing call from districts across the nation to extend the deadline, the federal government can and should consider options for increasing the flexibility of spending timelines.

From the state level, districts need strong guidance and a clear set of recommendations on how best to address students’ learning needs. The research literature and our own experience working with districts over the last three years point to a few essential strategies. First, develop a laser-like focus on improving academic instruction. Second, align strong instructional practice with “just-in-time” interventions, like high-dosage tutoring or summer acceleration academies, to ensure all students are accessing rigorous, grade-level content. Third, link academic learning to comprehensive supports that address students’ social and emotional well-being and mental health.

Giving districts choice in how to spend COVID relief funds is important to ensuring that communities are able to build on their strengths and address students’ unique needs. But, right now, each district is working alone to figure out how to spend funds, duplicating efforts of many other communities. A more coordinated state-level effort to inform COVID responses could help districts learn from one another and allow the Commonwealth to move forward some key priorities in improving education.

From the community at large, especially those in the policy world who are publicly weighing in on school spending, districts need understanding. With schools stretched impossibly thin, there is a powerful role community leaders can play in moving conversations from education recovery to reinvention. But pressuring schools to throw money at problems without a cohesive, long-term plan will not lead to the kind of substantive changes our students need. Communities can come together and work collaboratively across sectors and interests to provide schools with additional capacity, space, and expertise to look beyond urgent, short-term challenges and craft a vision for the future.

Meet the Author

Twelve years ago, Newark was at a crossroads. With $100 million to spend, it faced a momentous opportunity. The theory that money is the key driver behind school success was put to the test. And the answer couldn’t be more clear: Money is a huge component in the success of schools, but only if it is used as part of a coordinated, well-thought-out effort toward change. Massachusetts is at that crossroads now, and if we don’t give schools the time, support, and understanding they need, we will throw away our shot at transformational change in schools.

Chad d’Entremont is executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy.