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Let schools decide how to spend pandemic windfall

This doesn’t mean funds shouldn’t be earmarked for broadly defined purposes — for example, investing in outdoor learning or arts education, which has lacked funding for years (AP)Premium
This doesn’t mean funds shouldn’t be earmarked for broadly defined purposes — for example, investing in outdoor learning or arts education, which has lacked funding for years (AP)

  • In its latest, $129 billion round of pandemic aid for K-12 schools, the federal government is earmarking 90 percent for school districts — the rest will go to state education departments — and giving districts broad discretion for how to spend the money

New York City is planning to spend hundreds of millions of its pandemic-relief dollars to pay for, among other things, a mandatory new curriculum and 9 million books focused on cultural diversity. Some schoolchildren will surely benefit. But the city’s one-size-fits-all approach to spending the first installment of its three-year, $6.9 billion windfall for schools is a mistake — one that the next mayor should undo and other jurisdictions should avoid.

In its latest, $129 billion round of pandemic aid for K-12 schools, the federal government is earmarking 90 percent for school districts — the rest will go to state education departments — and giving districts broad discretion for how to spend the money. Districts should give just as much discretion to individual schools, which have the best grasp of the needs of their students and communities. Chicago has taken that approach and will give about one-third of its pandemic funds to principals to spend as they see fit.

This doesn’t mean funds shouldn’t be earmarked for broadly defined purposes — for example, investing in outdoor learning or arts education, which has lacked funding for years.

Indeed, with enrollments down sharply in many districts, as well as growing teacher shortages, supporting learning opportunities that make school more engaging could bring both students and teachers back to the classroom. After a year of online classes that have heightened mental-health problems among students, experiences that connect learning to the real world should be a top priority.

While some districts might be tempted to hire much-needed counselors, social workers and teachers, spending pandemic funds on new full-time positions could create problems when the federal money runs out. By contrast, using pandemic aid to enrich ordinary classroom instruction with class trips and hands-on projects is more likely to be sustainable even without permanent infusions of extra money.

For example, the Wisconsin kindergarten teacher Peter Dargatz aims to spend four to six hours each day with his class on the outdoor trail behind Woodside Elementary School in Sussex that he began cultivating on a shoestring long before the pandemic. Dargatz said that one of the biggest benefits of outdoor learning is that it promotes the physical and emotional health of his students. Children learn to count and write by observing what they see outdoors — the number of pine cones, descriptions of bird nests, letter shapes they see in nature. Student test scores have remained steady, Dargatz says, while attendance rates are consistently high.

Maintaining the trail and cultivating plants and outdoor play areas costs just a few thousand dollars a year. Dargatz also depends on donations of wood pallets, tires and other materials to create outdoor play structures, as well as partnerships with a nearby nature center.  

Another model is the progressive-schools network affiliated with the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which has been connecting courses in everything from science to social studies to real-world events and projects for decades. (Consortium schools are exempted from most standardized tests, but have outpaced schools with similar demographics on both graduation and college matriculation rates.)

At Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom School, a high-poverty Bronx high school, students use the Bronx River as their laboratory. The Brooklyn New School hires a cultural anthropologist to help elementary school students who are studying Native Americans build authentic teepees.

Modest funding can go a long way when schools are given discretion over spending. When New York City earmarked $75 million for arts education in the late 1990s and let schools decide how to spend the money, the half-dozen schools at the Julia Richman campus pooled their allotments to hire and share a full-time art teacher.

Pandemic funding gives states a unique opportunity to encourage schools to try new ideas; they also should gather intelligence about the most successful experiments. Granting schools some flexibility from the pressure of standardized tests would help foster experimentation.

Pay increases for teachers — a target of some pandemic spending — are a key to solving the teacher shortage. But putting pandemic funds to good use also will depend on providing “top-down support for bottom-up reform," as Tom Sobol, a legendary New York Education Commissioner, once argued.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of 'After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform.'


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