Kevin: As in-person learning resumes and a new normal begins to take shape, schools across the country are deciding how to best spend $189 billion in federal COVID relief. At the same time, the $2 trillion spending bill that passed this fall will provide federal dollars for universal pre-K, broadband access, and a host of other initiatives that have gone underfunded for years. What are school leaders doing to ensure that this windfall and federal aid is spent wisely? How can we be sure that these dollars will really get students back on track? And what can parents do to ensure that their voices are heard when it comes to the spending decisions that impacts their kids' education? This is, "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by education finance guru, Dr. Marguerite Roza, to find out. Dr. Marguerite Roza is a research professor and director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. Her research traces the effects of fiscal policies at the federal, state, and district levels to truly understand their impacts in the classroom. Dr. Roza's work has prompted changes in education finance policy across the country. And she is with us today to explore how school districts can make smarter financial decisions at this critical time. Dr. Marguerite Roza, it is an honor to have you on my show, "What I Want to Know." You're one of the preeminent school finance persons in the country. I've called on you many times over the years for your expertise. You've developed this incredible specialty in school finance. I mean, you were one of the advisors for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and you've worked with school districts around the country. How did you get to that place?
Dr. Roza: So when I went back to graduate school in education, I brought with me some quantitative skills. Neil Theobald was my advisor back in the day, and he talked a lot about money and I just found it really interesting. And I think that's just kind of where I've been since then. I would say people think the school finance stuff is boring, they're not paying attention. It's not boring. It's so interesting. And who doesn't like money and money is where all the really intense arguments play out and where the stakeholders show up. It's just been fascinating. So I thought maybe I would run out of interesting things to look at and there's no chance.
Kevin: One of the things I wanna get into right away, you've been very vocal about the federal funding. We've got...because of COVID, I don't know if people understand the depth and breadth of the dollars coming to school districts, $189 billion in federal relief, that amounts to over $3,700 per child, every school child in America.
Dr. Roza: Mm-hmm. Three kids in a family are $10,000.
Kevin: Three kids in a family are $10,000. But not only that, there's $2 trillion in the federal relief package that includes, as you know, and you've written about it and talked about it, universal pre-K, broadband access. I mean, what are the districts gonna do with all this money?
Dr. Roza: We got emails, like our email lit up with CFOs from school districts saying, capital letters, "HELP." And the help was, how do we spend this, or how do we even process this amount of money in the amount of time? So first I'll have to say, not every district got large sums. It's not like it went around evenly. Some districts got as little...some got none, and some got $200 or $400. For the most part, larger or higher poverty districts got a lot more. And so you see, you know, urban districts, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit got much larger numbers, sometimes $5,000, $6,000, $7,000, or higher dollars per student. So I just wanna point out that not every district is in the same boat. And the other thing is they were worried that if I go hire a lot of people, the money runs out, now I have to lay them off. And that's so disruptive.
And that's part of why we've been out trying to help people think about the different options with this money. There are more options than that. But we got the same question than when we went to ASBO, the Association of School Budget Officials. And some people in the audience were raising their hands saying, "I mean, what if we don't spend it? We can't spend it all." And we were saying, "Okay, don't do that yet. Let's talk through some options." But I think that's the kind of quiet part of this if you're one of the districts that got one of the larger sums.
Kevin: Are these dollars one-time allocations?
Dr. Roza: This money is one-time, it runs out. You have to use it by September 2024. But if the administration is successful at upping the amount of federal dollars, it could be that there's some new money coming later to offset that, but no one knows. And obviously, those are decisions that Congress would weigh in on and the politics are what they are.
Kevin: So I wanna talk to you about how you think school districts should consider or approach using these dollars.
Dr. Roza: It's super easy to think, well, we've always had this wishlist sitting here. And our teachers want a raise, and we've got some painting to do around the building and it'd be nice to redo the gym flooring, and like sort of take our wishlist and then just fill it all in. I think in some ways, that's a mistake. Really the pandemic was hard on kids. And there are lifelong impacts on students that we know are gonna play out, not just from social-emotional, but really from academic impacts where kids haven't been doing math problems for over a year, or missed learning how to read and now they're 8 years old, or now are no longer on track to graduate from high school. And these are things that parents have an expectation for sure that the money was supposed to address. The money is supposed to be some catch-up, get back on track, get up to speed. And so districts would...they, I think, do themselves a disfavor if they don't go and attend to those basic needs first. And that's hard work. It's really hard.
The other thing is the public is very aware of this money and they wanna be able to see it. So if it disappeared because you pay for an upgrade to your accounting system or things like that, which are important things to do and there's some more professional development days. And also we, you know, brought some more people on for a central office department or hired another vice-principal. Parents won't see the money and they will wonder where it went. And I think that there's a big risk there.
Kevin: You and I both remember Race to the Top. That was almost about 20 years ago. And the Obama administration came in, and they had best of intentions, and they said, we're gonna give you hundreds of millions of dollars school districts in America if you can demonstrate that you have a plan to move the needle with student achievement. And there was a lot of back and forth, there were these blue-ribbon panels, people trying to figure out state by state, district submitted plans, feds decided. Arne Duncan and the team said, "Well, okay, you get it. You get it." At the end of the day, Marguerite, and correct me if I'm wrong, a lot of those dollars went to teacher salaries, it went to do some of those programs. I mean, I think they did an audit and not a lot of those dollars ended up going to help student achievement.
Dr. Roza: Race to the Top was $5 billion. This is $189 billion. I think that people will equate the two and there was some more federal money that came at the time that's as part of ARRA, and that money ended up doing some backfilling of state budget cuts. So sometimes we didn't really expect to see much from it and we were in a recession. So money was tight across the board. This is really different now. We're not in a recession. State budgets are healthy. So this is really coming on top. And I only point that out to say, it's a large amount of money. One of the things some districts did, many districts did and some are still doing, is turned around and gave thank you bonuses to teachers. And, on the one hand, you know, the labor market's tight and you know that the districts wanna make sure they're treating their teachers right. Because if the teachers did start leaving, we haven't seen that yet, but if they did start leaving, you know, it really puts the district in a pickle.
At the same time, that's been one of those things where parents said, "What did we get? You know, show us what we get." And I think there was an opportunity to help on both sides. We could turn to the staff and say, we're going to give you a one-time bonus because this moment is hard. And we're expecting a lot from you. We need you to bring your A-game every day, roll up your sleeves, and really help get our kids on track. And so this money is for that. So it's forward-looking, not backward-looking. And then you could message to the parents. When you go to school, you know, we're paying your teachers more now. We know there's a lot of work to do. They're, you know, jumping in with everything they have. And that's what that money was for.
Kevin: It seems to me that if school districts are gonna figure out...trying to figure out how to use this money, they should be guided by what the data shows on where their kids are in their districts and make sure that if they hire a vendor or apply some resource that's gonna help close that gap that they're constantly monitoring to ensure they're getting the bang for the buck.
Dr. Roza: We've even heard this from schools. What do we measure now? And I said, if you invested some money in counselors and you're thinking this will help kids get their social-emotional skills back and be ready, then go measure it. Are they coming to school regularly? Do their teachers report that they're turning in their homework and they're working? Do you have some sort of surveys of the kids to say, "Kids, do you feel more productive at school?" But sometimes we hire the counselor. We say, "Your office is Room 206." The counselor sits down and says, "Well, you know, a couple of kids signed up to meet with me. I'll meet with those kids." And really the school is thinking that the counselor is getting the kids who are not coming to school back to school, not the ones who are already at school, or is disproportionately spending their time with those who registered having anxiety last year or who are being off-track for college, and there is that disconnect. So we need to make sure everybody is clear about what the goals are and that we're measuring those.
Kevin: You know, a lot of this has to do with what you have called...people talk about the K-shaped economic recovery, you talk about the K-shaped learning recovery. So explain that.
Dr. Roza: They are these divergent paths that some parts of the economy were accelerating and some were sinking, like the two legs of the K. And we thought that was a really good analogy for the students because some students went home, they had their parents sitting next to them, almost like a personal tutor, getting through their work, maybe doing more of their online activities like the math software and things like that. And getting a good amount of sleep and staying off their video and all this stuff. And that was actually accelerating their progress. And others were seeing the opposite. They were not getting very much touchpoints at all for schooling or academics, maybe logging on once in a while or not, maybe staying up, you know, late hours into the night or helping out with their family with other activities. And you didn't see that learning accelerating. And that's what we're worried about is that there is a sizable chunk of students who were really harmed academically by the pandemic and need to get back on track. And there's a lot of territory to cover to get them back on track.
Kevin: Do you have concerns that this money could end up creating a financial backlash for some school districts because of the over-reliance?
Dr. Roza: I think, yes. We've seen quite a few districts. Some of them were losing students before the pandemic, and then they lost more students during the pandemic. And so they were already overdue to shrink the district. You know, you get as many resources for your district as you have kids. And if you have fewer and fewer kids over time, you're gonna get less money. That's how the formulas all work. And so they should have been shrinking before but instead, they were dipping into reserves and avoiding making hard decisions. And now they have this extra bunch of cash. And so they may be propping up what is a system they can't afford anymore. That they have too many half enrolled schools and too many theater teachers, and things like that, and not enough, you know intensive resources where they have students who need them.
Kevin: So in your work over the years, and I've talked to you about this many years ago, this idea of how we finance and fund schools is at the heart of this. I mean, a lot of us do the tax base, a lot of us do various appropriations, the feds don't play as big a role most people think in terms of funding school districts. In the wake of these new dollars that have come in, is it time to reopen the conversation about how we fund education?
Dr. Roza: Most of the money comes from state and local sources. Most states have made some progress to come up with more equitable formulas that take into account the money you can raise locally. So we've seen a lot of progress on that. And not everywhere and not perfect, but there's been some progress on that. We still, for the most part, give our money to districts and then say, "Have at it." The federal government now came in with this much larger chunk. And they said, "Have at it. Here's some money." What we haven't done is really build the capacity in districts to leverage that money to do the most for their kids. We don't require district administrators have any financial training generally. We don't require...principals do, and it shows. Most of them want it, but they haven't gotten it. We haven't historically built the financial tracking systems to even to say how much money one school gets versus another because that's a district decision, how much they're gonna give one school to another. And that only became a requirement about a year and a half ago, that we even know how much money went to each school. And you know we also don't do? We don't compare the money to the outcomes for kids. So I feel like the systems aren't in place to even leverage the progress we've made. And that's where there are some real low-hanging fruit.
Kevin: That leads me to my last question, Marguerite. This is what I really want to know. You're an expert in school finance and many states are getting a lot of COVID dollars to help educate children. But when it comes to the education of our children, is it really about the money?
Dr. Roza: I say yes and no. Because we know from the data that there is a positive relationship between money and outcomes. It's not strong, it's not robust. We'd like when we invested more dollars to see a real return for kids and sometimes we don't. And in some districts, we don't. So what we do need to do, whether we're spending what we're spending now or even less or even more, is tighten that relationship, so that when we have more money, we've figured out how to put it to work so it benefits kids. And we're not working hard enough at that. And I think that there are researchers across the board, some that make louder calls for more money than others. The point where they agree is that we've gotta figure out how to leverage that money we do have and any additional dollars to bring a return for students.
Kevin: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Marguerite Roza, thank you for joining us on "What I Want to Know." I certainly appreciate your work, keep doing what you do.
Dr. Roza: Great to talk to you. Thank you for having me.
Kevin: Thanks for joining, "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining, "What I Want to Know."
Dr. Marguerite Roza is a research professor and Director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. Her research traces the effects of fiscal policies at the federal, state, and district levels to truly understand their impacts in the classroom. As a result, her work has prompted changes in education finance policy across the country.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.