Schools Now Have Tons of Money. What Are They Doing With It?

Nov 17, 2021 12:00:00 AM


I live in Lawrence, New Jersey—a middle-class, diverse town, halfway between Princeton and Trenton. For years I was on the school board and was very active in local governance, but over the years I’ve mostly stepped away from that sort of public service. 

However, I serve on the board of a local nonprofit focused on improving educational outcomes for the children in an affordable housing community called Eggerts Crossing Village, where almost all residents are Black and poor. When stimulus money started pouring in from the federal government earlier this year, we saw an opportunity to help this local organization get some additional support. After all, most of these children have been stuck at home throughout the pandemic, and our organization has been using its limited resources to make sure families have internet access and tutoring and other basics to make up for lost learning time. 

I learned (with some digging) that my district was getting an unexpected boon of $3 million. Surely, the children of Eggerts Crossing Village were the intended beneficiaries of this bounty. Where, I wondered, was this money being spent? 

Readers, I can’t figure it out.

And I’m not the only one, nor is Lawrence the only district where parents and advocates struggle to figure out their school districts’ plans for spending unprecedented infusions of federal stimulus money (often referred to as “ESSER funds” for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief). It’s all supposed to go towards keeping schools open safely and helping kids catch up on the instruction they missed. But in most places, parents and voters have little or no evidence that this is happening.

Even the most knowledgeable education analysts are in the dark. Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), which has been closely tracking districts’ use of ESSER money, told me that one of her colleagues described the hunt for spending plans as looking for a needle in a haystack. “An unprecedented influx of dollars with zero accountability is where we stand currently,” Lake said. [pullquote]“Parents can't wait months or years to learn if these funds are being spent on things that will help their child get back on track academically or that will address mental health or other barriers to learning. They need answers now.”[/pullquote]

Zero Transparency

Those answers are hard to come by, and not just in Lawrence. With zero accountability and zero transparency, some fear that American school districts may be squandering $200 billion in taxpayer money. This largesse has the potential to be transformational. As the Learning Policy Institute notes, the massive infusion of cash offers an opportunity “to return not just to our pre-pandemic status, but to an even better system that will support our students now and into the future.” 

But that’s only if districts and states use the money wisely. And if history is any precedent, that’s only going to happen if parents stand up and demand that they do.

After all, [pullquote]school districts can be opaque with, well, just about everything, from curricula to professional development for teachers to student proficiency data.[/pullquote] Much of this is due not to the districts themselves but state departments of education that abide inscrutability. Yet it shouldn’t be so hard.

For instance, I know how to read school board budgets. I know how to navigate the district website. Through my work with the Eggerts Crossing nonprofit and my history with the district, I have access to administrators in high places. Yet the only information I found was a spreadsheet of specific payments made with the money. Sure, I could extrapolate from the list that the district was planning on administering diagnostic assessments, that it had contracted with a tutoring group, that it was planning on offering social-emotional interventions for students.

But that information didn’t give me a hint of the district’s strategy to ameliorate learning loss among typical students, let alone those with the greatest needs. This lack of information is in spite of the Biden administration’s requirement that every school district in the country conduct “meaningful consultations” with their communities and factor this input into their spending choices. 

Some districts are trying harder than others. For instance, Highline Public Schools, outside of Seattle, devotes a section of its website to descriptions of what they’re spending money on and how they’ve solicited community input. Indianapolis Public Schools has an Online ESSER Tracker that “tracks expenditures so the public can follow along as IPS works to aggressively combat the negative effects of COVID-19.”

But [pullquote]most are putting little to no effort into informing the public, and key to this lack of transparency is districts’ failure to follow the rules and fully involve communities in setting priorities for spending.[/pullquote]

Marguerite Roza of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University explains how it’s supposed to work:

The feds aren’t telling districts what to do with this money, but they are telling them that they’d better make that decision together with their communities.

And yet that collaboration among parents and districts remains unrealized.

We know this lack of transparency is widespread because the CRPE database details how the 100 largest U.S. districts are using conclusions gleaned from the community input they’ve collected. Of those 100, only half posted plans on how they are gathering public opinion and only 13 bothered to share the input they collected. “This is surprising given this is a mandated expectation for receiving funds,” said Bree Dusseault, a practitioner-in-residence at CRPE.

Pressure From the Ground

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The American system of public education simply isn’t set up for transparency on how districts spend money—and it’s a lot of money. New Jerseyans spend $28.61 billion a year on public K-12 education. Nationally we spend $640.0 billion a year

Where does that money go? Who knows.

But we should know, especially in these extraordinary times. So, [pullquote]given the lack of information distributed by state departments of education and local districts, the burden falls on activists to reveal how our tax money is spent.[/pullquote]

After all, there’s so much at stake. Here we are, spending buckets of cash, and yet if that money isn’t directed at research-based strategies that will help kids catch up, then we’ve wasted time, resources, and our children’s potential academic success. “There can be an opportunity to do mid-course corrections, if we find something working well or not well,” said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington. “We will be in a bad place if we don’t have much evidence that $200 billion didn’t move the needle.”

For example, the National Parent Union (NPU) recently announced a national campaign called EPIC, or “Everyday Parents Impacting Change,” to pressure school districts to disclose how they’re using funding from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act. The campaign was instigated by a poll commissioned by NPU that found just 17% of low-income parents say they were asked how the money should be used.

Not mincing words, NPU leaders state:

We already know school district leaders and elected school boards are ill-equipped to govern public education and serve the best interests of all students, a problem that was exacerbated by the pandemic. We cannot allow them to squander billions of dollars that will determine education outcomes for tens of millions of children.

NPU’s list of demands includes transparency from all federal, state and local elected officials with parents about allocations; authentic engagement with families in decision-making; and the use of funding for “student-centered investments that are rooted in access and equity for children most in need.”

Closer to home for me, Newark Public Schools, New Jersey’s largest school district, submitted to the state Department of Education a budget for part of its $282 million in emergency ESSER funds. The budget (only released thanks to Chalkbeat reporting) included lots of necessary recovery items. But 12% of the money is being spent on items that have nothing to do with keeping schools open and completing unfinished learning: “$6 million for new athletic fields and gym floors, $2.4 million for security cameras, about $536,000 for floor-polishing machines, and $25,000 to produce ‘inspiring’ school recruitment videos, according to the district’s federal aid application.”

“Students and staff who are looking to recover from COVID couldn’t care a rat’s ass if the floors are shiny or not,” said John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union (who prefers the district give teachers bonuses with the money).  But Newark district superintendent Roger León is sanguine: “I want to thank everyone who has assisted in thinking about what we should do with these dollars,” he said at a May 25 board meeting, “whether it’s pools that are in our schools, fields that our students demonstrate their genius in sports, as well as the incredible work that we know needs to occur in our schools.”

Activists like Newark’s Oscar James are asking for more. James just launched a petition drive demanding that “meaningful consultation” be mandated by the feds. He notes that the “huge influx of federal funding could be transformative” for the city’s enrollment of almost exclusively low-income Black and brown students, yet district leadership has “failed to meaningfully engage the community in this process even though this is an explicit requirement of the grant.” In addition, “the public has not seen the district’s plan for the money.”

James goes on to list the demands of Newark community members: a display on the district website of the school board’s allocations, creating specific outreach opportunities for families to share their concerns and priorities, quarterly updates on spending, monthly reports at school board meetings on attendance (Newark has a chronic absenteeism problem), and results of diagnostic and proficiency assessments.

“Don’t ignore us,” James warns. “We will fight for our children’s education and social-emotional well-being for as long as it takes.”

Parents in Minneapolis Public Schools, a long-troubled district where only about 20% of Black, Latino, Indigenous students, and pupils with disabilities can read at grade-level, are also fighting back, specifically to address the city’s dismal literacy rates. When the school board announced it had $160 million at its disposal through the federal stimulus bills, Khulia Pringle, a former teacher and Minneapolis parent, addressed a “diverse group of families” in front of district headquarters, saying, “They have major, major millions of dollars. They need to get a literacy plan that’s based on the science of reading.”

Investigative journalist Beth Hawkins writes:

District leaders promised to present a plan at the May board meeting, but instead introduced the framework for creating a plan. In June, the parents group organized their first protest outside district headquarters, carrying signs bearing the superintendent’s face.

Yet those advocates were ignored. In the end, the school board decided to spend only $1.9 million out of the $160 million on literacy and $75 million on retaining teachers, maintaining programs, and recruiting bus drivers and custodians. Said one Minneapolis parent, “not one board member said, ‘we want to meet with every one of these families.’ We were ghosted — that’s the only term to describe it.”

Like activists in Newark and Minneapolis, parents have been presented with a moment to intercede in this urgent battle for “meaningful consultation.” [pullquote]After a year of watching children struggle through Zoom screens and witnessing classroom activity up close, we must fight for systemic changes that directly address opportunity gaps and inequities that pervade America’s schools.[/pullquote] Unless we do, districts will spend money on inspirational videos and floor polishers, not on what students like those at Eggerts Crossing Village really need to succeed academically.

The system won’t fix itself. It’s on us to force transparency and accountability on our local schools. And the moment is now.

Laura Waters

Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, where she was president for nine of those years. Early in her career, she taught writing to low-income students of color at SUNY Binghamton through an Educational Opportunity Program.

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