Invest in Long-term Needs, Not Short-term Gains

Posted By: Joshua Starr AASPA Blog,

If ever there was a time to bring together a diverse set of stakeholders to help identify their most urgent needs and weigh in on spending decisions, this is it.   

I started going to the gym regularly in my early 30s, when I realized that if I was going to stave off the inevitable spread that happens to men as they age, it wouldn’t be enough to play basketball a couple of nights a week — I needed a regular exercise routine. That’s when I began to wake up at 5:15 every morning to spend an hour doing cardio and lifting weights. I’ve never been anything close to a power lifter, but it was satisfying to stack a little more weight on the bar every month. Plus, it was nice to see the results when I looked in the mirror. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good as you get older. 

By my early 40s, though, my back and my knees were telling me to stop playing basketball. So, along with my gym routine, I started practicing yoga, which soon had me bending, stretching, and balancing in ways I never knew I could. And that’s when I finally grasped what the fitness experts are always saying: The most important thing is to strengthen your core. A strong core doesn’t feed your vanity. It doesn’t show off your fitness, the way big muscles or a drive to the hoop can. Rather, it’s the foundation for everything else you do to stay fit. Now that I’m over 50, I’ve learned that while middle-age spread is, in fact, inevitable, it can be managed. And while I still jog and lift weights, it’s the yoga — my daily core work — that matters most to my health.   

Why do I share my approach to fitness, and what does it have to do with public education? It strikes me that much of what goes on in the name of school district leadership resembles my early workout routine. Far too often, our decisions have more to do with looking good in the short term than with tending to the long-term health of the K-12 system. Instead of making balanced investments in human resources, curriculum development, assessment, professional development, student support services, and other core district roles and responsibilities, we splurge on just one or two high-profile programs or initiatives, hoping to see a dramatic boost in reading scores, say, or a rapid increase in graduation rates, or some other quick fix that will earn glowing headlines in the local news. 

I’ve had this on my mind, lately, as the federal government has poured pandemic relief funds into public education, with much more likely to come from the Biden administration. To be sure, schools and districts desperately need the money. But I worry that many superintendents will be tempted to spend it on short-term, cosmetic changes, rather than on more fundamental, lasting improvements to their districts. 

What not to do 

To understand what could go wrong, consider how district leaders usually spend their federal dollars, especially the money they get through Title 1, which is designed to mitigate the effects of poverty by providing supplemental funding to districts with large numbers of vulnerable students.  

Over the last 20 years, the federal government has emphasized test-based accountability in reading and math, so Title 1 funds have gone mostly to these subject areas, supporting investments in personnel, programs, materials, and technology intended to increase reading and math scores. Superintendents can choose to use Title I money for other purposes, such as increased arts programming, social-emotional supports, family outreach, or even the purchase of laundry machines for students to use at school. But it’s not easy to convince state officials that these things will translate to higher test scores, so most superintendents opt to play it safe and steer the funds toward reading and math instruction. That’s why, for instance, if you visit Title 1-eligible schools, you’ll often see that a lot of money has been invested in reading coaches, extra periods of reading instruction, new reading materials, and off-the shelf reading programs, while the school lacks a full-time nurse, the playground is falling apart, and the science rooms lack basic equipment. 

To put it another way, many district leaders choose to focus on lifting weights, not on strengthening their core. Hoping to look good on accountability measures, they invest their Title 1 funding in efforts to boost students’ test scores, rather than on broader efforts to improve the whole school system. 

When federal funds start to flow 

Thanks to the pandemic relief package passed by the U.S. Congress in March 2020, billions of dollars are now flowing to school districts through a program called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). Eligible districts received one tranche of ESSER funding last year (which they can spend through September 2022) and a second one this fall (which they can spend through September 2023). The question is, will district leaders spend it on narrow, short-term goals, or will they use the opportunity to take a broader and more strategic approach to allocating federal dollars?  

To get a better handle on how district leaders can use these funds, I spoke with Sheara Krvaric and Melissa Junge of the Federal Education Group, a District of Columbia law and consulting firm that helps school districts and state departments of education navigate the complexities of federal funding requirements. I knew they could provide an expert analysis of the range of spending options on the table for superintendents to consider. 

First off, they explained, ESSER gives district leaders an enormous amount of flexibility to decide how they want to spend this money. As long as the funds go toward easing the effects of the pandemic, they can be used in any number of ways, including many that wouldn’t be allowed under traditional federal programs. Under Title 1, for instance, funding is meant to benefit only those students whose family income falls under a certain threshold. However, ESSER funds can be used to benefit all students in the district — for instance, superintendents could pay for a new districtwide curriculum to address learning loss, for an early warning system that identifies students who need COVID-related mental health support, for updates to school HVAC systems to improve airflow and filtering, and on and on. Or, of course, they could address the deep inequities laid bare by the pandemic and focus on ways to support the most vulnerable student populations. 

Don’t spend it all in one place 

How can system leaders make good use of their ESSER funding, using it to promote the overall health of their schools, rather than focusing on just one or two high-profile areas? Of course, every school system has a unique set of strengths, needs, political pressures, and more. But I think a couple of broad recommendations are in order. 

First, the process of allocating ESSER dollars should be transparent and inclusive. Local community members have every right to know how this infusion of public funds will be spent, when, and based on what considerations. Given how severe the effects of the pandemic have been, and given the unprecedented amount of federal money now pouring into districts, superintendents can and should expect to be scrutinized. If ever there was a time to bring together a diverse set of stakeholders to help identify their most urgent needs and weigh in on spending decisions, this is it.   

But that’s not to say those decisions will be easy. Stakeholders will make competing demands, and they’ll argue about whose needs are most pressing, which schools face the greatest challenges, and which students have suffered most during the pandemic. And while ESSER funding will be substantial, it won’t be enough to provide every school with mental health services, upgrade every school’s HVAC system, staff every school’s health clinic, provide accelerated instruction to every student who has fallen behind over the last year, and so on. Trade-offs will have to be made, and limited funds will have to be divided among various priorities, each of which could easily use up the whole pot of money.  

All the more reason for system leaders to step away from their familiar decision-making routines. They may be used to taking charge of the strategic planning process, defining a new vision for district improvement, and making big bets on a couple of high-priority initiatives. But the challenge now is to hear out their various constituents, consider their competing priorities, and try to make reasonable, evidence-based decisions about which of them to fund and with how much money. To my mind, they should give extra weight to the needs identified by schools with the largest numbers of vulnerable students (rather than, as is often the case, responding most quickly to demands that come from the wealthier and whiter parts of the community). Wherever they decide to allocate these federal dollars, though, the pressure will be on them to show the public exactly how they arrived at those decisions, using specific criteria, data, and reasoning. 

Given the amount of media attention given to the problem of “learning loss” during the pandemic, I worry that district leaders will be tempted, once again, to overspend on efforts to boost student performance in reading and math, leaving chump change for various other priority areas (such as infrastructure, social-emotional learning, mental health, community engagement, English language services, and instruction in science, history, art, and other subject areas).   

My hope, though, is that they choose to make a greater number of smaller, but still significant, investments in trying to shore up the various parts of their school systems upon which their most vulnerable students depend. Unless you maintain a strong core, nothing else will last.