Billions of federal COVID recovery dollars are pouring into the nation’s schools. The $123 billion in federal recovery money is the largest one-time federal public education investment in history.
And by their own accounts, school districts across Galveston County, which collectively received an unprecedented $103 million, have noble plans.
Although it’s tempting to try to cure decades of inequities and other problems laid bare and worsened during the pandemic, school districts should use the massive infusion to correct immediate problems caused by the pandemic and school closures.
That immediate problem is getting students who lost an average of 5.7 months of learning from March 2020 to September 2020 back to where they need to be.
U.S. public schools have an urgent mission to use the money to best serve students and taxpayers without creating programs that can’t be sustained when the federal money is spent and gone.
Whatever school districts set for themselves as goals, they should be specific, measurable and achievable.
That’s not to say school districts should ignore this opportunity to reassess practices and policies. But they should spend the money to launch effective, sustainable programs.
“Some investments will add long-term costs without fundamentally improving students’ experience,” David Rosenberg, a partner at Education Resource Strategies, wrote in a June 2021 article for FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
“For example, in light of the challenges teachers have faced before and during COVID, it may be tempting to allocate federal funds to across-the-board, permanent staffing and salary increases. But in just a few years, districts would be left with inflated and unfunded budget obligations— and potentially little academic growth to show for it.”
This windfall presents the same temptation for school districts that other governments have succumbed to when they get huge sums of disaster aid money. The temptation to use federal housing money to build roads, for example.
Some of the smartest uses of the unprecedented buckets of money being hauled into cash-starved districts are programs that actually mitigate learning loss. Such programs include intense tutoring, summer programs and hiring interventionists who can identify and help students who’ve fallen behind.
Galveston ISD hired interventionists and created staff positions to help students who are performing below level.
Roughly 75 percent of the $2.9 million Friendswood ISD received will be used to create 13 positions. The district plans to spend $632,230 on interventions for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and more than $1 million on six instructional coaches to ensure the curriculum addresses learning loss.
“Our interventionists are working directly with students, and our coaches are working directly with teachers,” said Stacy Guzzetta, executive director of student operations at Friendswood ISD. “We hope these intense efforts and infusion of support will impact for years to come.”
Texas City ISD will spend $1 million of its $22.4 million on a summer program for three years, while Galveston ISD will spend almost $1 million of its $15.7 million on instructional technology, including Chromebooks and laptops over three years.
Clear Creek, Santa Fe and Texas City together are investing many millions of dollars in counselors, truancy clerks and social-emotional learning programs and professional development and parent and education training.
None of the school districts in Galveston County appeared to have bad ideas about spending the once-in-a-lifetime funding. That has not been the case everywhere. The Illinois State Board of Education recently rejected a district’s plan to use COVID relief dollars to install an artificial surface on a football field. That’s the sort of misdirection — using these dollars to replace tax dollars — that local districts should avoid, and seem to have avoided, so far.
And some already are aware that what they’re creating with the funding is temporary and likely will need to be eliminated after three years or funded differently.
Texas City ISD has advertised staff openings as three-year grant positions. Once those three years have passed, the district will reevaluate whether it has the funding to continue.
Friendswood ISD hopes to keep some positions past the allotted three years, Guzzetta said.
“These positions all help to further our district strategic plan,” she said. “At this time, we hope that the local budget can absorb these positions when the federal funding is gone.”
Texas school districts face all sorts of problems a few million dollars might help solve. But local leaders need to keep focused on the fact that these dollars are meant to help students regain the ground they lost to COVID-19.
• Laura Elder