As president-elect Joe Biden seeks unity, K-12 funding for education recovery may become a centering point for collective effort and consensus in the likely event of a divided government. Every child and parent in this country is dealing with the challenges of closed or altered schooling. By January 2021, researchers suggest that students will have lost somewhere between three months to an entire year of learning depending on the quality of instruction they receive. Students will also need more social and emotional support to grapple with the isolating, disruptive effects of COVID and reacclimate to more regular school routines.
While some school systems are meeting the associated funding challenges by dipping into reserves and tightly managing new spending, most have not begun to address them and are looking ahead to a significant decrease in revenue. Addressing these challenges will demand a higher level of spending organized in different ways, which will require the combined efforts of local, state and federal governments.
These challenges disproportionately affect districts and schools with the highest concentrations of students who live in poverty, are learning English and who face the challenges of systemic racism. These students are more likely to lack the basics for distance learning — and to face stress and anxiety as family members disproportionately lose jobs, get sick, face food insecurity, or continue to work in situations that expose them to the virus. As with “summer learning loss” in a typical year, students living in poverty and those who have already fallen behind are expected to fall further behind than their peers with greater financial means. And, the districts that serve many of these students tend to rely most heavily on state and federal revenue as opposed to local property taxes, which change more slowly. Worse, these districts are more often located in states with low funding to start with.
As the president, Congress and state legislatures consider how to help, our learning from ERS’ deep work with districts that serve high concentrations of students with the greatest needs suggest four design principles to keep in mind.
First, districts will need significant extra funding over multiple years. The CARES Act dollars provided an average boost of about 2%. Districts with concentrated need received about 3-5%. Put this amount against the challenge created by finding ways to recover from nine months of disrupted schooling. Optimistically, students will have received some form of instruction for about half of this time, with the quality of instruction uneven at best. The districts we work with have all lost enrollment, especially at the Pre-K and Kindergarten level. These enrollment losses suggest that next year, schools will need to invest in even more acceleration and reconnection for students who missed out on a year of education. We can’t wait to invest to accelerate learning because we know that falling behind academically can create a downward spiral, but we must be realistic that this work won’t be done in one year.
Second, as CARES did, funding solutions must protect and raise spending for districts and schools that serve students with the highest concentration of student need. While it might be tempting to view education recovery as a short-term need, disparity in educational outcomes is a pre-COVID challenge that we now have a chance to address with new strategies and energy. Policymakers need to build toward long-term solutions that raise overall spending on education and provide more resources for concentrated need. Prior to the pandemic, several states, including Massachusetts and Maryland, were poised to do just that. Though more challenging to negotiate such an equitable education spending increase in today’s tighter economic times, it’s also more important than ever.
Third, increases in spending must be accompanied by redesign of labor contracts, policies and regulations that make it hard (sometimes impossible) to change schedules, calendars, staffing arrangements and community partnerships. Such flexibility will be critical for implementing strategies that accelerate learning for students and do it while staying within budgets. Even with an infusion of “stimulus type” dollars, districts will need to find new, more cost-effective ways of organizing talent, time and technology that change up our cost structures for the long-haul. Federal and state legislators should also make it easier for districts to quickly address priorities in new ways by combining funding streams in service of evidence-backed strategies for accelerating learning. Politically, leaders in California succeeded in passing historic funding reform that gave more to districts with higher needs by making the case that this increased flexibility helped increase the buying power of dollars even for districts that didn’t get more resources.
Finally, along with this flexibility, legislators should create incentives and support for districts to spend money in ways that use evidence-based strategies and change cost structures. This can be done. For example, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is providing technical assistance and guidance around innovative ways to support new teachers that enables higher pay for mentor and lead teachers and more effectively harnesses the potential contributions of new teachers. In Maryland, new dollars came along with requirements to redesign the teacher career path and compensation structure to ensure higher pay over a teaching career and create incentives for the best teachers to work in the highest need schools. In Texas, legislators authorized significant infusions of dollars and technical support for reorganizing time, teaching roles and compensation to create extended learning time and for teacher leadership paths, especially in higher needs districts.
Biden and his team can leverage this moment of urgent and renewed awareness of the critical role that K-12 education plays in building our democracy to do more than provide short-term COVID recovery aid. Instead, they can build toward a long-term increase in spending on our children with the greatest needs and encouraging the long-needed changes in the how time, talent and technology are deployed in schools that will both accelerate learning and change cost structures so that we get more for our money, and for our students.