How will school leaders spend Biden’s relief funds wisely?

By: | March 1, 2021

The good news is that the school districts will have an “avalanche of money” coming their way in the latest COVID relief bill. The hard part will be spending it wisely, says Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute think tank.

President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act, which appears headed toward Congressional approval, represents the centerpiece of his administration’s education agenda, he says.

“By the time this money hits school districts, there’s a good chance the pandemic is going to be behind us,” Petrilli says. “These resources will be spent over multiple years to address the unfinished learning, the mental health needs and other challenges kids are going to have.”

Petrilli cautions education leaders not to spend the money on long-term obligations—such as large-scale salary increases—that might not be sustainable after the relief funds run out.

More from DA2 key K-12 issues for 2021: Testing and gender-identity

“There will be pressure from teachers unions and other groups but this is a one-time infusion and school systems should treat it like that,” Petrilli says.

The immediate focus should therefore be helping students recover loss instructional time with longer school days, a “super-sized” school year, high dosage tutoring and summer school, he says.

Adding a month to the 2021-22 school year and lengthening the school day would, of course, require salary increases for teachers and other staff, he says.

Leaders will also need to devote funds to hiring or contracting for more counselors to support students’ mental health needs.

Petrilli also expects Congress will have built in provision to ensure more funding goes to schools that have been disproportionately affected by COVID, including low-income students and students of color.

“The only way any of this stuff is going to work is if you’ve got other basics in place,” Petrilli says. “If you’re a school system that doesn’t have a comprehensive curriculum and high-quality instructional materials, investing in those would make sense also.”

Debating discipline policies

Outside COVID, Petrilli anticipates the Biden administration to bring back Obama-era policies on issues such as discipline, with a focus on restorative justice practices over suspensions.

More from DAWhat might match Biden’s impact on education policy?

“I worry that even though it comes from the right impulse that it could end up making it hard for school districts to put in place discipline policies that really promote learning and recovery,” he says.

Educators may face an increase in disruptive behavior as students who have struggled most during the pandemic return to classroom as schools reopen. This will negatively impact the learning environment for other students, Petrilli says.

“There are going to be kids who come back with enormous and real trauma and they’re going to act some of that out in schools,” Petrilli says. “We can have policy discussions about what all of us can do to help them stay on the right track and give them the mental health supports they need.

“What we shouldn’t do is lower our expectations for what appropriate behavior looks like in schools.”