Federal Support That Enables ‘Building Back Better’

Type: Article
Topics: Advocacy & Policy, American Rescue Plan, District & School Operations, Finance & Budgets, School Administrator Magazine

August 01, 2021

Executive Perspective

At this time last year, school districts were in the midst of a pandemic that threatened continuity of instruction and portended significant economic shortages for education.

Where would the money come from that districts would need to reopen schools safely? Estimates indicated hundreds of dollars per pupil would be required for personal protective equipment, sanitizing schools, COVID-19 testing of students and staff, transportation costs and more. Additional dollars would be needed to ensure all students had a tablet at home to participate in remote learning.

A Blessing and More

A year later, school districts are dealing with the very opposite of what they feared. On March 11, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan bill that provided $123 billion to K-12 education, an amount that equals 17 percent of the total annual spending for state, local and federal funds. This came on top of two other bills that already provided K-12 with $67.8 billion in funds over the past year. The total of $190.5 billion is a blessing that brings both unprecedented opportunity and responsibility as well as unprecedented problems.

Some members of Congress believe school districts do not need all the money that is being made available to them, that the money will be ill spent and that invariably much of the money will go unspent. In an effort to highlight how ill-informed and short-sighted this rhetoric is, last May we assembled a group of superintendents to serve on AASA’s American Rescue Plan Committee to track how the money is being spent, what roadblocks may prevent districts from spending on the areas that best serve their needs and what additional regulatory flexibility may be needed. This information was communicated to the secretary of education and Capitol Hill on a regular basis.

Surprising no one, some states were quick to use these federal dollars clearly marked for local districts to instead backfill state budget cuts. While the underlying statute included maintenance of effort language to help prevent this fiscal shell game, the reality is that enforcement left something to be desired and the ultimate responsibility for those cuts fell where it was least intended — at the local level, where school districts were left holding the purse strings.

Much of the initial planning on the use of funds dealt with one of the requirements of ARP, calling for at least 20 percent of a district’s funds be used to address learning recovery. Examples of allowable activities included summer learning and an extended school year. Early polls indicated that many districts were considering offering four-week learning camps for elementary students this summer and possibly next. Extending the school year was not seen as a viable option at this time. Staffing has been a major issue as many teachers indicated that the pressures of the past year required them to take time off to decompress. Many districts were forced to cut back on their summer plans.

The Longer Term

A major concern for superintendents is the ability to sustain programs and services after the funding expires. Funding must be obligated by September 2024, but will that be followed by a funding cliff? Hiring additional personnel is a popular request, but how will school districts fund the additional salaries when the money runs out?

To be effective in dealing with the learning loss and the social-emotional issues brought about by the pandemic, the need for more counselors, nurses, class-size reduction necessitating more teachers, longer school days and extended school years are priorities, but they raise the sustainability problem.

Throughout the past year, we heard much discussion about “building back better.” Many superintendents saw this as an opportunity to make the changes that would lead to a student-centered, equity-focused education. AASA’s National Commission’s report, “An American Imperative: A New Vision of Public Schools,” called for a holistic re­design of the public school system by 2025. The report specifically outlines the changes that must happen, and AASA is in the process of identifying demonstration sites that exemplify the new paradigm.

The infusion of generous federal funds alongside the disruption created by the COVID-19 pandemic do provide educators with the opportunity to create a brave new education world.