Andrea Gabor: Let Schools Decide How to Spend Pandemic Windfall
Andrea Gabor writes for Bloomberg, and serves as the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College in the City University of New York. In this recent piece, she talks about better ways for districts to decide how to spend their pandemic relief funds.
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.