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Alan Borsuk: Districts using federal pandemic funds wisely may see more payoff in future

This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 23, 2021

It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. It won’t really accomplish anything.

Both opinions are widely held as schools across the country plan what to do with a huge wave of federal funding intended to boost both students and schools as a result of the pandemic.

“This is an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children,” Keith Posley, superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, said during a Marquette Law School program posted online July 21 on how the money will be used. Posley added, “Our children deserve these funds and even more to make sure they are able to truly get the quality education that they deserve and live that American dream.”

But you need look no farther than the state Capitol in Madison to find opposite views. In late May, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “The amount of federal money that is going to school districts is overwhelming. It’s really kind of obscene in many ways.” The new state budget limited spending on schools largely because Republicans thought the schools were already getting so much in federal aid.

At $129 billion (more than $2 billion for Wisconsin), the third and by far the largest wave of COVID-triggered federal education aid is coming with some striking and unusual provisions. Three of them:

  • Schools and districts will have a lot of power to decide how to use the money.
  • The money is being distributed in line with poverty, so Milwaukee is getting more than $500 million in this wave, equal to about $7,000 per student. More affluent districts are getting considerably less than $1,000 per student.
  • The money has to be spent over the next three years, with no commitment for further funding, so it is generally being considered for one-time or short-term needs.

“I can’t stress enough that districts get to chose,” Marguerite Roza said during the Marquette program (which I moderated). “Districts have an enormous amount of flexibility with this money.”

Roza, director of what is called the Edunomics Lab of Georgetown University, is an expert on school finance and a close observer of how school leaders are deciding to use the money.

She said that so far – with many decisions still to come – her team is seeing a lot of districts using the money to make “thank you” payments to staff for their work last year. Many are filling budget gaps. Hiring counselors, nurses and others to help with students’ emotional needs is a high priority. Buying more technology and curriculum materials is popular. And many are spending on increased training for teachers.

Not so high on the list: Tutoring programs, although Roza said interest in them appeared to be increasing. There has been little support nationwide for lengthening school years and not much interest in ideas that could be called innovative, she said.

With little outside oversight of how the money is to be used, Roza said it largely will be up to communities to decide if their schools are doing good things with the money. “Parents have an expectation that they’re going to see that money adding value for their students,” she said.

She cautioned districts against using the money to add staff or reduce class size because the short-term availability of the funding could mean hitting financial trouble in several years.

As required by the federal law, MPS has been holding public sessions to get input on how the money should be used, with decisions to come ahead from the School Board.

Posley said areas expected to be increased include technology (every child should have a Chromebook computer in school and another at home, he said), textbooks, increased tutoring, more professional development for staff, more programs to help parents help their children, more extracurricular programs, and expanded summer school offerings a year from now. MPS is also spending huge amounts ($183 million even before this wave of money arrives) on improved air quality in schools.

Brittany Kinser, executive of two Rocketship charter schools in Milwaukee, said during the program that the Rocketship schools were receiving about $3.7 million, equal to about $5,000 per student. It will go to uses such as more small group learning and tutoring and more staff to help students with emotional and mental health needs.

Kinser said, “These funds will make an incredible difference in how we can respond to the learning loss due to COVID-19, which has disproportionately impacted our low-income students of color.”

John Stellmacher, business manager of the Kettle Moraine School District in western Waukesha County, said during the program that the district, which has about 4,000 students, has incurred substantial costs during the pandemic, including $1.6 million for instructional equipment for students.

He said the district is working on plans for the money it will get in the new wave. “Since these are one-time funds, we want to be very deliberate,” he said.

“The historic dollars are not going to have as much impact on a place like Kettle Moraine as in some other districts,” Stellmacher said. “But as educators we want every kid to be successful…regardless of which Zip code you live in, which community you grow up in. We want every kid to have access to a quality education.”

Kinser said she expects the new money will show what can be done with more resources.

That might be the biggest success for using the COVID money. If schools taking on the toughest challenges in education can show that they are effectively using these funds to do better and not just doing more of the same, that might change the key words in some conversations from “obscene” to “opportunity.”

Alan J.  Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at alan.borsuk@marquette.edu. The full Law School program on the federal money may be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZUU-dN_zfc&t=1722s 

 

Published on July 23, 2021

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