Episode 4: State Legislators Walk the Education Recovery Tightrope
Austin Reid, senior legislative director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, shares the nuts and bolts on how states are distributing federal recovery funds and what role state legislators play in the process. He also dives into how labor shortages are impacting the ability of states and school districts to spend recovery funds and the need for more accurate and actional data to help shape recovery-focused decisions.
Jim Cowen This is Jim Cowen from the Collaborative for Student Success, and this is the “Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery” podcast. Each week, we travel the country on a kind of “road trip” to talk about the ways federal recovery dollars are being used in states to reshape education. Along the way, we’ll hold up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.
Our guest today is Austin Reid, Senior Legislative Director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL, State-Federal Relations Program. Austin and his team have been carefully tracking how states have or haven’t been spending their allotment in federal recovery funds. Austin is also a former teacher.
Jim Cowen Austin, welcome. Thanks for joining us today.
Austin Reid Thanks, Jim. Glad to be here.
Jim Cowen This is a question we ask of all the guests—we’re approaching this under the theme of this “road tripping” idea—so, before we kind of dive into more heavy talk around the recovery and the report that you all have put out, got to ask you, what’s kind of your most memorable road trip and is there some sort of song that was accompanying that trip for you?
Austin Reid Yeah, this is a fun question. I think my most memorable road trip, I took a five-week trip through the mountain west before I started grad school. Started out in Oklahoma, visited Yellowstone. Actually, I totaled my car hitting a deer at 75 miles an hour coming out of Yellowstone. Got another car, spent a week up in Glacier National Park, spent a week in the Grand Teton National Park, [and] came back down through Texas. I think that every good road trip has some roadside stops and if you’ve ever been anywhere on I-40 near Amarillo, you know that you either need to go to the Cadillac Ranch or to the Big Texan Steak Ranch, home of the 72-ounce steak. So, I certainly hit up both of those locations. And then in terms of favorite road trip song, I might say I have a favorite road trip album that I think you can’t go wrong with: Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” One, it’s named after a highway so it’s very road trip themed, but it does have a lot of references to cars and things like that. And it’s just a classic blend of a lot of American musical styles, which feels really good when you’re driving.
Jim Cowen So you are with the National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL. Your organization advocates for what? Somewhere like 7,000 plus state legislators across the country. We know that they are grappling with massive issues right now as their states rebound from the pandemic. We are obviously interested in education recovery, says so right there in our tagline, but we’re facing an election year pretty soon. And you are staring at potentially a scenario where a third of those members are going to turn over in some fashion which, sort of, puts you right back, you know, at the start of some of those relationships. What’s your sense of the role that those legislators are playing in education recovery right now? Has that changed? What are some of those, I mean when you do have that kind of turnover, how does that change sort of impact how you interact with them?
Austin Reid So I talked with some legislative leaders in education from across the country on Friday and as a result of the election year, some legislators have shorter sessions, or they may be off entirely this year with a few. But no matter how long their session was this year, I think all of them emphasized just how busy and productive this legislative season was for them and, for some, it’s still going. Many go through June 30th at the end of the fiscal year. You know, in terms of their role in recovery, I think largely they are playing a standard role, which we’ll get into, which is just providing resources to education and making policies to sort of manage the education system. But they’re also dealing with recovery specific quandaries and some initiatives. So, of course, large part of state legislatures is providing funding to local school districts. About, you know, on average, one-third of state budgets go towards education so, legislators are always grappling with the “what’s the adequate amount of funding for K-12 education?” and particularly making sure that that funding can be sustained year over year. And that’s particularly challenging right now. I think our economic outlook is a little uncertain. And even though state revenues were really up this year, and we’ve seen really big increases in education spending, they are also concerned that this is maybe something they won’t be able to sustain over time.
So, trying to make sure that they have a clear glide path for keeping year over year increases in education and I think they know that that’s especially important this year, given all the challenges that our education system is facing. Of course, they’re also trying to deal with just the distribution of those dollars; making sure that the funding formulas that they have in place are well targeted and are efficiently allocating resources. We’ve seen a lot of legislatures before the pandemic, and I think in light of the pandemic, really rethink their funding formulas. And of course, like I mentioned, they’re dealing with some pandemic specific allocations for resources.
The state legislatures received $150 billion through a coronavirus relief fund, then close to $200 billion through a coronavirus state fiscal relief fund. And many of those dollars have been actually allocated to legislation, but legislators are trying to figure out, you know, what are the biggest challenges across all areas of state budgets that we can solve with this sort of one-time funding, which is both a kind of a philosophical question, but also a very practical one.
Of course, we’ve seen state legislatures also get involved with the elementary and secondary education relief fund, dealing with sometimes allocating specifically through legislation the 10% state set-asides that states are allowed. I’ve also seen some states passed legislative guidance for the ESSER program. Again, they can’t direct how those funds are being spent, but they are providing some guidance and best practices for districts to follow. They’re also functioning in sort of an oversight capacity holding hearings and then trying to figure out how these funds are being spent, which I know we’ll be talking about more here.
And then outside of just trying to manage all these resources, which there are many and that’s a good problem to have, they’re also doing their usual role in passing legislation to improve the education system. We’ve seen a lot of legislation on student mental health, seen a lot of legislation either providing additional funding for teacher salaries or modifying a state salary schedules where they are to provide teachers increased compensation. [We’ve] seen a lot of interest in literacy and mathematics initiatives, particularly around the science of reading, to improve the kind of instruction that we’re providing for students. But also seeing state legislatures trying to figure out and grapple with staffing shortages that we’re seeing in schools and either coming up with new pathways for prospective teachers or modifying entry or reentry requirements to the teaching field. So, I think I led off with this by saying that legislatures are very busy. I think when I go through this response, they are extremely busy. They are dealing with unprecedented amounts of resources, but also dealing with unprecedented challenges in education.
Jim Cowen You hit on a lot of the categories that we have featured on our EduRecoveryHub and so it’s good to hear you sort of hit on those. It’s a bit validating to hear like, “yeah, these are focus areas for us,” because we’re definitely trying to hold up the best examples that we see. And we know that, you know, there are some massive challenges, you know, involved in getting such a huge amount of funding into the system at one time. I want to ask you about your, some of the analysis that you’ve come out with recently for NCSL, particularly around you mentioned ESSER, and that’s standing for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief spending, “ESSER dollars.” In the report, you mentioned that as of February, only 19% percent of that funding has been drawn down. And I say that by clarifying that included 87% percent of ESSER I, right? 33% of ESSER II, and 5% of ESSER III, which is like $123 billion total. So, these numbers are massive. They add up to that $189 billion, so we’re talking like $36.2 billion has been drawn down out of $189 billion total.
Does that cause concern for you when you see this far into it, like that amount, only that amount. I mean, that’s a lot of money, right, there’s no doubt about it, but there’s a lot more left. Does that cause concern in you?
Austin Reid I think it’s kind of a question or your reaction’s kind of an eye of the beholder thing. You know, when I first hear that, if you just put those numbers on the page without context, it does seem a little shocking. I think we know that the challenges in our education system, they’re very urgent. And I think we all want these resources, these unprecedented resources, to be deployed as fast as possible. And the idea that only 19% of the resources have been fully deployed does seem a little bit shocking and suggests that there’s some concern to be had, but when I’ve kind of listened to the conversation around the implementation of these funds and kind of gone back and done a, you know, couple year perspective on these, it’s not as shocking that the spend rate is, you know, where it’s at right now. And there’s a few reasons for that.
One, is just the spend rate data itself. It’s not necessarily an accurate reflection of the resources that are being deployed. It is a sort of backwards looking assessment. Essentially, in order for the federal government to report on this data, those funds have to be drawn down from state accounts, which means that they have been fully liquidated from a completed contract for neither good or service. But how contracts often work is that you might be paying out a contract sort of in incremental amounts or maybe at the end of that contract. So, it’s very possible we don’t have specific data on this, but it’s very possible that a majority, if not all of these funds have been obligated. That is that they have been assigned to a specific service or good for students and that there’s a contract that reflects that. And so, it won’t be for a few years until those contracts are completed that we’ll actually see that reflected in the spend rate data. For example, if you were to—and doing this is I’ve learned a lot about education finance through this exercise—but if you hire a new teacher in August. You will pay their salary out in small increments, and you’ll fully pay that salary out by the end of the year, but it’s still going to take, even after that salary is spent to actually, you know, take a few more months for it to be reported in the federal system. So, there is a bit of a lag in the official data. So that’s a very important caveat to keep with that.
But in terms of the spend rate, there’s also been a number of, I think, headwinds or aspects of the administration of this program that I think will help sort of calibrate expectations we should have for spend rate. And one, ESSER III funds have been out for over a year, and we’ve only seen 6% of them spent, but in reality, local school districts weren’t really getting access to even obligating these funds until probably fall of 2021. So, well over six to eight months after they were originally allocated and that’s simply because state legislatures or governors or state boards of education had to receive these funds in order for them to be made available to districts. States had to actually submit plans to the Department of Education to gain access to one third of these funds. Both of these processes took place over last summer and into the fall—that’s just for the state to receive the funds. And then for the state to actually send these funds down to local school districts for spending that required an application process. And so, states had to stand up these application processes that took a number of months in certain cases. And there’s no real standard state by state process for doing this. And so, again, like I said, the earliest that schools would have had ESSER III dollars would have been last fall. And we knew some states were not allocating ESSER III dollars until actually this March. They had to allocate them a year after they received them in some states that a couple of them did wait until that point. So that’s just to get the money out and available, but then for schools to actually come up with plans, and if you follow schools at all, or talk to a teacher, a principal this fall, you knew that this last year has probably been the most challenging year that educators in living memory can remember. Just the ever-changing dynamics of schools and, you know, dealing with the Delta on the Omicron waves and teachers sort of, you know, standing in as counselors and principals standing in as contract tracers and health care providers and sometimes bus drivers to deal with shortages. And so, the idea that, you know, districts were in a position to come up with really thoughtful plans and immediately implement these resources was probably a little bit overstated.
And so, when you take all this and its totality, it’s not necessarily shocking that the spend rate is where it’s at. And I think that there was a sense, especially at the end of this year, that schools were really looking to get to the summer to reset and then this fall really implement a lot of the bulk of the recovery initiatives that are reflected in the plans that states and school districts have put together.
Jim Cowen You wrote in your report—also, that’s a great explanation of particularly around just the logistical nature of this to get the money in the door and that makes a lot of sense—but you also wrote about how getting high quality teachers and tutors and counselors, because we are seeing a lot of focus on this high dosage tutoring efforts and other, you know, other teacher supported issues. There’s just a short supply of this for a lot of states and there’s just a huge demand for those kinds of services. Do you have any additional information around the kind of challenges that our paid people are facing with labor shortage or just with district capacity challenges that they have to deal with?
Austin Reid Yeah, I think these shortages are certainly making all of the strategies for recovery that we put on paper and often talk about in the policy space much more difficult to actually implement. And I think it’s made me appreciate that education is almost purely labor-intensive. You know you can’t just throw in new programs without having to labor to accompany that and there’s sort of two ways you can go about this as a district. You can either bring in new workers, new teachers for some of these recovery strategies, or you can try to get more out of your existing labor force, your existing teachers, but both of those approaches to, you know, implementing recovery strategies have certainly been challenged. I mean, on the demand side, you know, we know that there’s a lot of the professionals that we want, either educational professionals or mental health professionals, are in short supply. And then of course it’s a credentialed field that requires a lot of education. So, you can’t just raise up a labor force out of, out of nothing so that makes it more difficult to quickly scale a lot of these ideas. There’s certainly a lot of competition for these positions, especially in the mental health professional space. Our healthcare system is also competing for these jobs and can often offer a more competitive salary. So, if you’re a school that wants one, you’re often competing against maybe the local hospital system.
So, it’s often you’ve got schools competing against each other and sort of driving up salaries potentially in the process. So, one, there’s just not a lot of workers that are out there that are qualified to do some of these initiatives, but it’s also challenging to implement some of the recovery strategies that would require you to have teachers work longer days. So, of course, some of the most common strategies I think we’re going to see are either implementing extended learning days—maybe that’s adding an hour or two onto the average learning day—or even extending school years. But there’s issues where teachers need to consent to those programs and, you know, I think a lot of teachers are experiencing burnout. So, the desire to add on extra hours in the day may not be there. There’s also some contract issues and collective bargaining agreements that can limit some of these strategies. And so, you know, there’s a lot of strategies that schools are considering, but they’re very labor intensive and they do face a short supply of either labor that’s available to do new things or capacity issues with the labor they have. And of course, that’s not even taking into account any educators that might be leaving the field. There’s suggestion that we might see the great resignation come for education this summer. I think that the data’s not quite there yet, but we certainly know that a lot of there are some teachers that retired sort of earlier than maybe they would have during the pandemic. There’s sort of some strategies to try to get them back into the field.
And there’s also this dynamic where because there’s all this money out there demanding increased educational services. There are also a lot of vendors that provide these services and they’re actually looking to hire teachers too. And so, they’ve made that market more competitive. So, there’s just a great demand and not enough supply and that’s just for the education recovery strategies. But a lot of these ESSER funds are going towards school infrastructure upgrades and trying to upgrade HVAC systems and other aspects of the school building. But, of course, those workers—construction workers—are in serious demand for their services across various sectors of our economy. There’s definitely been a lot of reports that some schools are being told they can’t sign a contract for HVAC upgrade because the services that they want will take, you know, beyond 2025 for completion and January 2025 is when all the ESSER funds need to be spent or they’ll be returned to the Treasury.
And even when they can get these contracts, some of the parts for these upgrades are either slowed down by a reduced manufacturing capacity or shipping capacity. We certainly saw this with some microchip shortages earlier in the pandemic that caused delays in schools being able to get the supplies they needed for students. So, if you follow the broader economy, a lot of the trends that are affecting that are deeply affecting schools in a way that’s, I think, a little unique.
Jim Cowen Along those lines, like we’ve now seen more states requesting this “up to an 18-month extension,” particularly for issues like what you’re sort of laying out right now. Do you anticipate we’ll see more and more states requesting those extensions due those kinds of challenges?
Austin Reid It seems likely. I know a number of bigger education groups are certainly sounding the alarm that the spending horizon for these funds is too short. I know that there’s been some comments from the Department of Education to suggest that they’re open to talks of extension, but as I understand it, the implementation of that extension could be particularly difficult from the administrative perspective. So, I think it’s going to remain to be seen whether or not those extensions are granted, but it certainly seems like there’s a desire out in the field to have a longer horizon to spend these funds.
Jim Cowen One of the questions I’ve asked all of our guests, so far, is around the most marginalized kids. The students that have been hurt most by the pandemic, unfortunately, are the same students that have historically been underserved. Have you seen any signs these students in these schools are benefiting specifically from any of these federal funds?
Austin Reid I think it’s hard to have an answer on the impact that these funds are having on those particularly vulnerable students right now. I think we’re going to need a much wider lens to make this assessment. I think for many students, especially in the lower grades, this project for academic recovery could be one that takes over 10 years, if not more. I think this point has been made elsewhere and it’s a sobering thought, but I do think it’s a good one. We don’t know that many strategies that can make up for months of learning loss in a single year or two academic years and especially not on a nationwide scale. I think we can be optimistic that we can chip away over time and if it’s a five-month learning loss, then we can work at it year over year and get students back to where they would have been and hopefully ahead of where they would have been and try to close the existing achievement gaps we already have. So, I think that’s the sort of the horizon that I tend to think about this.
You know, one of the things you might think about, in terms of the funds having the impact on particularly underserved students, the reports seem to suggest that if students attended schools that were closed for longer, operated in a remote learning longer, that they tend to experience worse learning loss. And so, to the extent that federal funds opened up school districts and provided an opportunity for safe reopening, accelerated that, then I think we can count that as being much better than the alternative of them being closed and those sorts of effects being worsened even further. But I think it’s going to be hard to see the effects of even reopening, because I think in many places the learning environment last year did not look like the learning environment before the pandemic, given all the other challenges that students faced in the classroom. And so, I think we’ve started that path to recovery, but having a good sense of how those are serving students is still, I think, remains to be seen. That being said, there are, you know, a number of states, if not every state, that’s really put together these holistic statewide learning recovery initiatives, which you know have some really big price tags behind them. And I think that is cause for encouragement. I can point to the Indiana legislature [who] created a $150 million student learning recovery grant. New Jersey [created] $135 million for an accelerated coach and educated educator support grant program. You looked at the ESSER state plans, 29 states had plans for accelerated learning through tutoring. Thirty-one states had resources devoted to students with disabilities. Twenty-five had identified ways that they can improve their curriculum and implement that as a statewide priority. And so, it’s hard to know how well those funds right now are serving the students that have lost the most, but there are robust plans in place and a lot of funding behind that, I think to really carry out initiatives going forward. And I think, as I mentioned earlier, this year is where we can start to assess the real impact that these funds are having on those students and I’m hopeful that we’ll see some good immediate returns.
Jim Cowen Yeah, agreed. So, looking ahead, what are you going to be watching for when it comes to spending? What’s most important to keep your eyeball on?
Austin Reid Yeah, you know, I’m meeting with state fiscal leaders this week and the last time I talked with them a couple of months ago, they were concerned with fiscal headwinds. And what I mean by that is they’re concerned that you know, our economy is sort of in flux and there’s concerns of recession.
And one of the things that I hadn’t thought about until you posed this question was this idea that, you know, state fiscal leaders are very concerned that the fiscal boom we’re seeing this year won’t last. So, it’s very possible that actually a lot of these ESSER dollars, you know, if we face an economic downturn, may actually become fiscal relief dollars. I think an under talked about point in the ESSER spend rate is that this $190 billion, this was the need that a lot of groups estimated that schools would need to recover and of that $190 billion, they estimated that $60 billion of that was going to be per state fiscal relief. And what actually happened is that state revenues have proven to be very strong, thanks to a lot of the other stimulus efforts. And so at least $60 billion of that $190 billion that was going to go to relief just simply isn’t, but it’s possible that if there is change in state revenues and, you know, economy that maybe that side of those funds actually does get implemented for that purpose.
So that’s one thing I’m watching. That’s something that I had thought about that, you know, it’s something to pay attention to, but of course also paying attention to fiscal cliff issues. You know, I’m curious if whether the funds have gone to roles and salary increases that will be able to be sustained. I think state legislators are certainly concerned about that. They are largely increasing state budgets and state education spending, but, again, I’m really interested in that smooth glide path to year over year increases and want to make sure that, you know, the labor that districts have hired, they’re able to maintain over years.
And, you know, finally. Something else I’m looking at, I sort of alluded to this in the last answer, is just waiting for this fall to see how a lot of these recovery efforts are actually being implemented. I think it was hard to see some of the efforts. You know, in states where they had been open, their schools had been open for most of the time I think you get a little clearer picture, but hopefully this next school year is one in which schools are in-person the entire year. And I think that’s when we can begin to see, you know across states and across schools, more common recovery efforts and get a sense of how effective they’re being in the short term. And so, you know, those things I’m looking at, I’m sort of wondering whether or not the ESSER program will sort of shift in its purpose, you know, whether or not the fiscal cliff actually comes to pass, and whether or not the economy holds up. And I’m also interested in just how well these recovery efforts are serving students once the environment around schools is hopefully more calm this fall.
Jim Cowen So, you brought up, I have to think it’s immensely challenging for states when you’re dealing with variants and you’re bouncing from in-person to hybrid to, you know, some variation of that and trying to keep a plan in place of being implemented when the goalposts are constantly moving on how you’re doing this in a way to measure some sort of impact of what these efforts are. So, we certainly empathize with that and see that as an important part of what we need to be paying attention to. So, for each of these sessions, we also as a last question ask a question from a parent. So, I’ll pose it to you this week. Our question comes from Dale Chu from Denver, Colorado.
Dale Chu Hello Jim and Austin. I’m Dale and I’m a parent of a soon to be second grader in Colorado. I’m also a former educator and now work to improve the ways that schools measure student learning and use data to support instruction. I know that before the onset of the pandemic, state assessments and state school report cards were the primary ways that states communicated to parents like me about school performance. But assessments have been stop and go and data we’re seeing now from recently administered exams is pretty hit or miss in a lot of places. The states are just beginning to unthaw the measures they use to hold schools accountable. Moving forward, are state assessments and school report cards going to be as useful and how should legislators be thinking about how their states are reporting out how their schools are really doing?
Austin Reid That’s a very good question. A very complicated question. You know, it’s one that it’s a conversation that I think legislators are starting to have. And I think the main thrust of that conversation, I think first off, to the idea will it be useful in the future, I think it will be incredibly useful. But you know, a lot of the data that we get back through our assessment and accountability systems are sort of geared for policymakers and certainly policymakers have a lot of questions about the education system and about the efficacy of funding. And those are, I think, at a macro scale questions that we want answers to, and I think that data can help. But I think there’s a broad recognition in the field that sometimes that data, especially some of the assessment data that states get through summative assessments isn’t necessarily actionable for teachers. And I think right now, it is absolutely critical that every teacher has very actionable data that can be customized to each student, that can be integrated into their lesson plans, that can inform professional development, and that’s aligned between the curriculum and the standards and the assessments, you know, that local school districts have and up to the state.
So, I think that legislators particularly interested in how can we craft, you know, an assessment infrastructure that provides data for policymakers but also is more actionable for teachers. I can speak from experience as a former teacher. When you have actionable assessment data, it makes teaching so much more effective, but oftentimes some of the ways that we communicate that data to teachers just isn’t something that can be readily integrated into curriculum. And so, I think a lot of the legislators that we work with are trying to figure that out. In fact, we have a group of legislators that are at NCSL that are working to learn from the best practices in international systems. And I think that’s one of the lessons that they’re bringing back. And so, you know, I think this existing infrastructure we have is useful, but I think, you know, as a country and as individual states we could certainly do better in coming up with more accurate and actionable data to lead recovery, especially, you know, if we’re thinking about recovery on a, you know, five-to-10-year time horizon. We really do need to have the data that can help students from week to week, rather than just a checkpoint after the end of the year. And so, I think that’s sort of the, you know, we know states and some districts are already on path to this kind of data, but I certainly think that as a country it’s something we can strive further towards.
Jim Cowen Austin, thanks again for your time today. We appreciate all the great work that’s coming out of NCSL, and I hope you have a great summer.
Austin Reid Thanks so much. We appreciate you inviting us here today.
Jim Cowen This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery. For each week, we’ll travel the country to showcase the ways federal recovery funds are reshaping schools. Along the way we’re talking to people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Got a question or insight you’d like to share about what’s going on in education? We’d love to hear it. Reach out to us at EduRecoveryHub.org/RouteK12 or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.
About Jim Cowen
Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.