KANSAS CITY (AP) – As the federal government delivers historic amounts of pandemic assistance to schools across the country, it urges them to dream big, to invest in seismic changes that will benefit students for generations to come. But many districts say they have more pressing issues to tackle first.
In Detroit, that means fixing buildings with crumbling ceilings and mold infestations. Like other school systems, Detroit is caught between the lofty aspirations of the Biden administration and grim realities. The district uses part of government money to hire tutors, expand mental health services, and reduce class sizes. But at least half of its $ 1.3 billion windfall is being set aside for long-neglected repairs.
“For decades we have been unfairly funded to address the enormous needs that poverty and racial injustice have created in our city,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told The Associated Press in an interview. “Now, with the relief from COVID, we’re going to be able to significantly reduce the challenge. “
The administration encouraged schools to take jumps, not measurements, with the funding. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called the moment for a bold innovation that shatters inequalities and rethinks all aspects of schooling.
“Now is the time for us to make sure we reopen, reinvest and reimagine our schools differently and better than ever,” Cardona said at a virtual education summit in June. “The coming months and years will determine the success trajectory of the millions of students we care for. “
Despite these high aspirations, many large urban districts are devoting much of their pandemic relief to practical needs, such as hiring nurses, restocking libraries, repairing playgrounds, and returning classes. of art.
So far, there is little evidence of a major change, said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab, a school finance think tank at Georgetown University. Part of the problem, she said, is that aid has been given to schools with few strings attached.
“This is not a recipe for innovation,” Roza said. “We paid the dollars in the form of blank checks to each of these districts. And many will do what they already know how to do.
The pandemic relief injection is bigger than anything American schools have seen before. It totals $ 190 billion, more than four times the amount the Department of Education spends on K-12 schools in a typical year. Some districts will receive amounts of 50% or more of the cost of running their schools for one year.
Congress has sent funding in three waves since the start of the pandemic. The last and most important round, which totals $ 123 billion, is still being distributed and gives the school enormous flexibility in how it is spent. While 20% should be used to remedy learning problems, the rest can be used for almost any cost that school officials deem “reasonable and necessary”.
Yet little is done to track how schools use the money. After the first wave of funding, the Department of Education’s internal watchdog warned that monitoring grants was a “persistent management challenge.” would ensure greater transparency of spending.
The Associated Press, based on data published or provided by states and the federal government, for the first time calculated how much money has been given to nearly every district in the country. The federal government has not released complete data at this level of detail.
The PA has tracked more than $ 155 billion sent to states to be distributed among schools since last year, including general pandemic relief that some states have shared with their schools.
The median aid allocated to districts was about $ 2,800 per student, but it varies considerably by district and state, according to the PA analysis. The median for the districts of Louisiana and the District of Columbia was around $ 6,000 per student, for example, while it was $ 1,300 in Utah.
Nationally, areas of high poverty received much more. Detroit received the highest rate among the major districts, at over $ 25,000 per student. It was followed by Philadelphia, with $ 13,000 per student, and Cleveland, at over $ 12,000.
Schools have three years to complete the final cycle, a window that the districts say is short for such a large amount of money. In many areas, school officials are reluctant to shoulder costs that they may not be able to afford once federal aid ends.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, the public school system receives total funding of $ 321 million, an amount that Superintendent Joe Gothard calls “breathtaking.” But he said the deadline limits his spending options. The district has hired new teachers, but its main focus is on one-time costs such as renovating buildings and replacing books in the library.
“Three years will come very quickly,” Gotthard said. “It’s about managing expectations, honestly, and that starts with me. We really have to be careful to avoid a financial cliff. “
Detroit takes a similar approach. The district plans to add mental health services to dozens of schools, but this is being done through a contractor. Even building improvements will only be temporary if the district does not receive additional funding to maintain them, Vitti said.
Vitti’s plan has the backing of the school board. Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member who graduated from a district high school in 1973, remembers being a student when “the infrastructure didn’t crumble and everything was clean.”
“We want our students today to have the same feeling and the same opportunity as when we attended DPS back then,” said Hunter-Harvill.
But some community members say the district should focus on other priorities, including improving online courses. Ida Byrd-Hill, chief executive of Detroit-based recycling company Automation Workz, said students from economically disadvantaged families have struggled to learn through distance education that relied primarily on worksheets and online conferences.
“In the past, school infrastructure meant only brick and mortar buildings,” Byrd-Hill said. Now it must include high quality virtual learning systems.
Either way, federal funding could end up saving local taxpayers. Before the pandemic, the district planned to seek an increase in local taxes to cover $ 1.5 billion in building repairs. It would have been a tough sale in a neighborhood with a tough financial history. But with the new funding, Detroit could reverse its plans to seek a tax hike.
Districts across the United States have spent the summer debating how to spend the new money, in some cases facing pressure from competing groups of parents, teachers and activists.
Some families want more money to go to special education. Others demanded teacher training to tackle racial prejudice. Some activists have opposed plans to pay for building repairs, saying the aid should be spent directly on students.
At the same time, districts are under increasing pressure to increase teachers’ salaries.
Considering the district’s $ 300 million in pandemic aid, the Sacramento, Calif., Teachers’ union called for smaller class sizes, which would mean hiring new teachers, along with salary increases. And while the union is not asking to dip into federal money for the increases, the mere existence of the windfall reinforces the claim that the increases are affordable.
The American Federation of Teachers said federal aid should focus on infrastructure and academic support, but President Randi Weingarten said increases would also be needed to prevent waves of teachers from stopping after a stressful year. .
“Now is the time to create an environment to recruit and retain teachers, and part of it is the salary increases,” she said.
In Detroit, federal money will be used to maintain the risk bonuses and teacher bonuses that the district began offering last year. Vitti said teaching is more difficult in the city due to its extreme poverty, and he wants teachers’ salaries to reflect that.
“They should be paid more. We just haven’t always had the income to do it, ”he said.
Another source of concern for schools is state funding. While the worst fears of cuts in education have not materialized, there are fears that the infusion of federal funds will provide a reason to cut future state budgets.
In Holyoke, Massachusetts, one of the poorest areas in the state, pandemic aid helped offset a $ 4 million reduction in state funding the district faced l ‘last year. But with future funding still uncertain, the district is avoiding accepting large cost increases.
So far, the district has only earmarked a small portion of its $ 53 million total aid. It hires 32 math and reading teachers, and adds art and music lessons in schools where these subjects have long been absent, among other spending decisions.
Without more time and guarantees of sustainable funding, Superintendent Anthony Soto said he felt the districts “are just throwing money at a problem and believing these real systemic problems are going away.” And they are not.
In Detroit, Vitti sees a chance to advocate for increased public funding. He hopes to prove that even one-time funding will help increase graduation rates, reduce absenteeism, and deliver tangible improvements for students. If he can do it, he hopes Lansing lawmakers provide him with a continued lifeline to maintain success.
“We look forward to showing clear results from this investment,” he said, arguing that similar funding “should be pursued in a fair manner.”