We’re now in the final year for districts to spend their share of the $190 billion in federal relief funds. By this time next year, other than some outstanding contracts, districts will have to return to their normal spending levels.
How big of a drop-off will that be? According to FutureEd’s calculations through the end of August, school districts collectively have $72 billion left to spend. In rough terms, that means ESSER will provide about a 10% boost on top of normal spending this year.
Those are the national numbers. As Marguerite Roza and Katie Silberstein noted in a recent piece for Brookings, high-poverty districts both got more money initially and still have a higher share of it left to spend this year.
When that money expires districts will have to reduce their spending. Anyone who works in a district budget office is well aware this “fiscal cliff” is coming. But what about teachers, parents, and the general public? Are district leaders communicating what’s going to happen in their local communities?
There has been a lot of surface-level discussion of the fiscal cliff but far less discussion of what it will actually mean for schools and students. District leaders would be smart to lead those conversations now, but journalists have a role to play as well. Here are five categories of questions reporters should be asking of district leaders in the coming months:
- How are the children, and what learning gaps still remain?
- Are kids showing up to school?
- Are high schoolers attaining sufficient credits to be on track to graduate?
- Are math, science, and reading scores improving?
- Are certain student groups or schools still behind?
Money and Spending
- How much ESSER money has the district spent so far, and what was it spent on?
- How much ESSER money does the district have left, and how does it plan to spend it?
- How were funds spent to support students and accelerate learning in math, science, and reading?
- Did the district invest in student mental health supports? If so, how does the district assess mental health needs? How many students received services, and did those programs work?
- Did the district create or expand summer programs? If so, how many students attended, and how many hours of instruction did they receive? Did the programs help re-engage students, boost school-year attendance, and help more students get back on track academically?
- Did the district create or expand a tutoring program? If so, how many students received services, for how long and in what subjects, and did they make progress in the subjects in which they received tutoring?
- Did the district invest in new curricula? If so, do those classify as high-quality instructional materials? Has the district trained teachers in how to use the new materials, or how will it ensure effective implementation in the coming years?
- Which programs or staff were intended to be temporary? What will happen to the people working in roles funded by the one-time money?
- How will school staffing levels change this year and next? Most districts across the country have effectively reduced their student-to-teacher ratios over the last few years; can the district afford to maintain those staffing levels going forward?
- For any investments in staff recruitment or retention, how many people received the additional funds, how did it change behavior, and what shortages remain?
- How/is the district monitoring the results of their investments?
- Does the district have a plan to collect data and use it to inform planning around the coming fiscal cliff?
News stories answering these questions would help the public understand how districts have invested their funds, the impact of those investments, and the implications of what the coming fiscal cliff will mean in their community. And, if districts can show impact for their investments, they can make a case to state leaders and local voters to come up with additional money to continue the programs going forward.
Enterprising school district leaders could be leading these conversations in their local community. But if that’s not happening, reporters have an obligation to ask.