Billions of Federal Funds are Coming to Schools. How Should They Spend Them?

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Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | For decades, schools have added new staff at the expense of other investments. With the new federal relief dollars, district leaders should invest in targeted approaches to address the Covid-19 slide and maximize student learning opportunities.

Over the past year, Congress has invested nearly $200 billion to support K–12 education. School district leaders now face tough decisions about how to maximize those investments. Will they hire more teachers, pay existing teachers more to lengthen the school year or something else? 

If history repeats itself, most of that money will go toward adding more staff. The question is whether hiring more staff now would be the best way to help students recover from a year’s worth of pandemic schooling.

We think not. 

For starters, this is one-time money. Once the funds are spent, district leaders would most likely have to lay off the thousands of employees they hired. 

We’ve also tried hiring more staff before. In fact, adding staff is the main “big bet” we’ve pursued in public education over the last 50 years. Whenever spending increased, so did school staffing. Nationally, public schools spend about $14,000 per pupil. After accounting for inflation, that’s more than double what they spent in 1970. 

The vast majority of that money has gone to hiring more staff. Schools employ many more teachers per student than they did in prior eras, across all grade levels and subjects, including art, music and foreign languages. 

But in recent years, most staffing increases came from non-teaching roles. Schools have employed more counselors and specialists, like reading coaches; instructional aides to work with English learners and students with disabilities; and vice principals and administrators to oversee new regulatory and technological tasks. Numerically speaking, public schools have gone from employing one staff member for every 14 students in 1970 to one for every eight students today.

While some of the spending investments to increase school staff have brought positive benefits for students, it has come at the expense of investing in other critical areas. For example, the new money didn't buy more instructional time for students. Instead, school calendars look the same as they did in 1970, with the average student attending school 179 days a year for 6 hours a day. 

Higher spending has also not led to higher teacher pay. Adjusted for inflation, the average teacher salary is lower than it was in 1990, and barely higher than in 1970. Had we bet on raising salaries, we’d have a higher-paid workforce—and possibly a more diverse group of teachers. 

Another area starved for investment is in different delivery methods, like new technologies or new approaches to use and assign staff within schools. Those strategies might have helped with disruptions like Covid-19, but we didn’t pursue those ideas at scale with increased investment.

Unfortunately, old habits are hard to break. The teachers’ union in New York City is pressuring the district to use the bulk of its stimulus funds to hire 11,500 more full-time staff members. Other places including Los Angeles are considering similar plans, and many districts—especially those that operated remotely for the bulk of the year—have yet to announce their plans. 

How can schools invest their money differently this time?

The very thing so many students missed this year was time in schools with teachers and peers. Depending on the grade level and school, many students received only half to two-thirds of a normal year’s worth of school, equivalent to missing 60 to 100 days. Recovering that lost time seems like it would be an obvious choice for many districts. Some city and state leaders are looking to allocate funds to help students make up that loss. San Antonio, for instance, is planning to extend the school year by 30 days for the next four years. 

Relatedly, because the pandemic had very different effects on students, different interventions are needed to help those students who suffered steep setbacks. Targeted approaches like individual or small-group tutoring could provide the additional time and support to help struggling students get back on track. School districts in Kansas are considering paying teachers more money to teach summer programs. Rhode Island and New Hampshire are working with Khan Academy, the online learning site, to launch a tutoring platform. And Idaho gave a portion of its earlier stimulus funds directly to low- and moderate-income families to purchase educational materials, devices and services. 

These examples represent different visions for improving student outcomes, and there may be more than one best option. But that’s the point. As the next budget season approaches, will district leaders find themselves using the go-to strategy of the last five decades, or will they meet the moment with new and different ideas for what students need now?

Marguerite Roza is research professor at Georgetown University and director of Edunomics Lab, a research center that explores and models complex education finance decisions to inform policy and practice. Chad Aldeman is policy director at Edunomics Lab.

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