How districts can maximize once-in-a-generation federal funding

District leaders, school boards, and local elected officials must show the courage and principled leadership to spend the federal dollars wisely and ensure transparency
By: and | May 3, 2021
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Dr. Julia Rafal-Baer (left) is the chief operating officer of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs. Dr. Peter Gorman is Chief in Residents with Chiefs for Change.

Dr. Julia Rafal-Baer (left) is the chief operating officer of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs. Dr. Peter Gorman is Chief in Residence with Chiefs for Change.

For over a year now, state and district leaders and their communities have grappled with the process of reopening schools while delivering the best possible education considering the circumstances. And for much of that time, superintendents and district staff have had to make incredibly difficult decisions with short-term resources. Everyone in education – from the district leaders and principals to classroom teachers and parents to bus drivers, school nurses, and custodians – has stepped up and proven that we can work quickly, creatively, and collaboratively in the face of trying obstacles. Still, few – if any – would spike the football and most would agree that as far as we’ve come, we’re still only at the 10-yard line.

As of April 12, only 46% of districts in the U.S. are open for full-time, in-person instruction for all students. Five percent are still fully remote. And we don’t yet have a full picture of how much learning students have lost to the pandemic – but we know that it’s substantial.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of unprecedented federal funding, but district leaders, school boards, and local elected officials must show the courage and principled leadership to spend those dollars wisely and ensure transparency. Since last March, Chiefs for Change has been working closely with district leaders and other administrators to provide resources and gather best practices for how to deliver a high-quality education while also keeping students, teachers, and communities safe. Through our work, we’ve helped districts develop tailored strategies for their needs, and we’ve helped them pressure test individual plans for everything from the introduction of hybrid learning to the return to in-person, to mass vaccination events for educators and school-level staff, to the implementation of mitigation strategies like COVID-19 testing programs.

Now the work needs to focus on recovery, and we can’t settle for a simple return to what existed before COVID. Districts must take full advantage of the generational opportunity to transform learning – and there’s significant help on the way to make that happen. Our organization will be there to again provide resources, best practices, and support to help districts and state leaders think big, focus on equity and maintain strategic discipline.

I. Prioritizing investments for immediate impact and long-term return

With $123 billion in federal funding getting distributed through the American Rescue Plan in the weeks to come, we’re focused on helping district leaders understand the funding formula and prioritize the areas that will provide all students with the greatest possible support and set them up for success in the years to come. Instead of rushing through a budget exercise, we recommend taking this time to envision how these funds can make schools the center of safe, healthy and economically thriving communities. This is much more of a change management exercise than a financial one. Over the last several weeks, our team developed this workbook to guide districts through a planning process, with space to innovate and capture new initiatives, tactics to align partners, and resources to monitor progress and efficacy.

In this memo, Chiefs for Change laid out five core and straightforward pillars that every leader should consider when building a plan to put these federal dollars to work:

  • Reopening schools;
  • Accelerating learning and addressing social/emotional development;
  • Creating and strengthening postsecondary pathways;
  • Redesigning and modernizing assessments and accountability systems; and
  • Closing the digital divide.

Reopening schools

Health and safety are still at the forefront of everyone’s mind. With the expectation of vaccines for a broader age group of students and expected booster shots that adults may need, districts will need to continue to have mitigation efforts, including COVID-19 testing, ventilation upgrades, and vaccination programs in place for the foreseeable future. We continue to encourage districts to use additional emergency COVID relief funds to ensure that schools can safely reopen (or stay open) for uninterrupted learning for all students, 5 days a week.

Accelerating student learning

With two disrupted school years, students have fallen behind: some, substantially so. To address learning loss and accelerate student progress, we’ve partnered with the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy to identify several measures districts can take to put students back on a pathway for success and ensure that they are getting the right social and emotional support they need to thrive. Our recommendations include a transition to a longer and more flexible school year, similar to what Chiefs for Change Board Chair and San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez has proposed in his district (more below); reformed staffing models that ensure students are taught by teachers with subject-matter and instructional expertise; a heightened focus on social and emotional wellbeing that gives students ownership over learning; and the adoption of high-quality instructional materials that come with robust teacher support and are aligned to formative and summative assessments.

Creating strong postsecondary pathways

Today’s high school seniors are facing a more uncertain future than nearly any previous class. Even before the economic turmoil inflicted by the pandemic, a high school diploma on its own was not a ticket to economic security. The vast majority of jobs in the United States require some postsecondary education or training. Coming out of this pandemic-induced recession, that will be true for even more jobs.

In Chiefs for Change’s Blueprint for Postsecondary Success, leaders are encouraged to invest in systems that track postsecondary outcomes including data on college enrollment and success; enlistment in the military; and employment and earnings. COVID relief funds can be used to strengthen data gathering and analysis at the school level.

Chiefs for Change also calls for partnerships with local community colleges and employers, and recommends that districts take advantage of new dollars to reimagine CTE so that it is fully aligned with industry demands. Students who follow a career track can and should have a job waiting for them when they graduate.

Closing the digital divide

COVID has exposed a lot of gaps in our education system. None have been more clearly exposed than the digital divide. Nearly 17 million students across the country still lack access to high-speed internet. Students of color and those from low-income families are most disproportionately affected. And they’re also the students who are most likely to already be behind in their learning.

Broadband is infrastructure and our nation is in dire need of universal broadband. But districts can’t wait for a massive, trans-continental public works effort. Kids need access now.

Many of the Chiefs for Change members have taken the initiative to expand access. Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools near Seattle, for example, partnered with philanthropic leaders and organizations to sponsor individual families in need of broadband access for $140 per year. Guilford County Schools (North Carolina) Superintendent Sharon Contreras installed hotspots on school buses and parked them in high-need neighborhoods so students could log on for remote and distance learning classes.

These were successful efforts in response to a crisis, but they were never designed to be a permanent solution. This funding from the federal government is a generational opportunity for districts to make rapid improvements to tear down the digital divide.

Redesigning assessments and accountability systems

 One of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been that it’s forced organizations of all sizes to reimagine systems and explore new ways to support their community. In education, accountability and assessments have almost exclusively focused on math and reading proficiency and growth. Those metrics are still essential, but this is an opportunity to reimagine our systems in ways that ensure we have more of a lens into whether students are building the deep knowledge and critical-thinking skills that are necessary to be productive and engaged members of society.

Modern assessments should be better connected to a broader set of skills that more clearly signal college and career readiness. Funds can be used to pilot new assessment and accountability systems that can be quickly scaled (and quickly pivoted away from) based on evidence.

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II. Avoid the perils of well-intentioned advice

For all of the potential with a generational investment of this size, such an infusion of money can be perilous. District leaders will undoubtedly have no shortage of creative pitches from vendors with the next best idea for them to spend their money on. But these investments must align with an ironclad commitment to a strategy and clearly articulated priorities. Every dollar spent needs to be spent with purpose and with an eye on sustainable returns, continuous improvements, and – most importantly – student outcomes.

Superintendent Martinez has taken an ambitious and progressive approach putting this funding to work and aligned to our report, The Return. His district could be eligible for just over $200 million, and he’s using it to add up to 20 learning days to the school year: 10 intersession days to the school calendar in July, five extra days in January, and five on Saturdays throughout the next school year. He’s offering a 19 to 39 percent pay bump for teachers who want to work the extra days and commit to specific instructional and enhancement standards. This is on top of an across-the-board two percent pay bump for all district staff and a $1 increase in the district’s minimum wage (from $15/hour to $16/hour).

Martinez has a clear understanding of how big an opportunity this influx of funding really is and is using his connections with community leaders and other stakeholders to push back against a tendency to chase easy political wins or placate special interests.

III. Opportunity to double down on what’s already proven and make a down payment on new ideas

The funding available to districts is not a bailout to close COVID-induced budget shortfalls. It’s a multi-year investment, intentionally designed to give states and districts the confidence they need to double down on proven programs or make a down payment on new ideas that can sometimes take several budget cycles to fully scale. Creative districts could potentially put those dollars to work over the course of the next decade with the right focus on long-term planning.

While there are many advantages to a long-term allocation, a multi-year spend-down shouldn’t leave district leaders waiting until the end of the cycle to invest.

Districts need to look at this as an opportunity to double down on new initiatives that are working and as a down payment on long-term investments in technology, infrastructure, and connectivity that will pay dividends for years to come. This investment will allow districts to move beyond the ‘what if’ phase and bring successful pilots to scale.

It’s also an opportunity to knock down small but persistent obstacles standing in the way of good, ambitious public policy – like the concerns over space, workforce, and outreach that held Rhode Island back from passing and implementing a universal Pre-K program during then-Governor Gina Raimondo’s term in office.

Earlier this week, President Biden presented an ambitious agenda to the American people. Reasonable people can agree and disagree on different components of his plan, but education leaders of all political stripes should and do recognize the incredible and generational opportunity in front of them. As they look more closely at the emergency funding, we urge district and state leaders to think big and do big things with it … but only do big things that align with a clear-cut strategy and well-defined goals for advancing student outcomes and advancing educational equity goals.

Dr. Peter Gorman is Chief in Residence with Chiefs For Change, executive coach for superintendents and senior leadership teams, and the author of the book, “Leading a School District Requires Clarity, Context, and Candor: An Aligned System to Increase Student Achievement at Scale.” He is the former Superintendent of the Tustin Unified School District and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, North Carolina.