Federal billions are coming. How will Georgia use them?

We have already seen school choice advocates in many states including Georgia seize on COVID-spurred school closures to push expansion of voucher programs and tax credits for tutoring and home schooling.

ExploreGeorgia schools to get over $4 billion from latest federal stimulus

Unlike 2009 when the Great Recession shriveled jobs and spending and federal stimulus became a lifeline, many state budgets weathered the coronavirus pandemic. CARES Act unemployment supplements allowed people to keep buying and state treasuries to keep collecting sales tax. A Harvard analysis found Georgia consumer spending rose by 2.8% as of mid-February, compared to January 2020.

That means many school districts, while not flush with cash, are also not rationing pencils and furloughing staff as a result of deep state cuts. Georgia’s better-than-expected economy led the General Assembly, with the governor’s urging, to pass a budget for the rest of fiscal 2021, which ends June 30, that restores about 60% of what lawmakers cut from basic K-12 school funding last year.

Still, districts shoulder new expenses from the virus, which shuttered schools a year ago and shifted classes online. Earlier education stimulus funds helped underwrite computers, teacher training, broadband, protective gear, and sanitizers. This new bounty sets a larger and more toilsome target — reopen schools and help the students who lost ground both academically and mentally.

The American Rescue Act is not overly prescriptive in how the money can be spent, although districts must apply 20% of their share to learning recovery using what the law calls “evidence-based interventions.” States can use the relief to avoid staff layoffs, hire teachers, nurses, and custodial staff, meet social, emotional and academic needs of students and pay for summer, after-school, and other extended learning and enrichment programs.

“This pandemic has taken an extraordinary toll on students, parents, educators, and schools, and we know that our schools, students, and communities need help now to reopen safely and quickly, and to stay open,” said Secretary of Education Cardona. “These funds from the American Rescue Plan and the extraordinary steps the department is taking to get these resources to states quickly will allow schools to invest in mitigation strategies to get students back in the classroom and stay there, and address the many impacts this pandemic has had on students — especially those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”

At a press conference Wednesday, Cardona said he hopes to release funds this month. “We know that schools are needing that to not only prepare for reopening now, but also to plan ahead. We know that when our students come back, they’re going to need more social, emotional support. We know that our schools have to be designed to meet the needs of the students after they return after a pandemic.”

As this money reaches Georgia, education leaders ought to reflect on the hits and misses of Race to the Top, an Obama White House initiative that awarded a total of $4.1 billion to 18 states and the District of Columbia. Later evaluations found promised reforms never gelled because states attempted complex changes in a compressed timeline.

While education advocates still debate the impact of Race to the Top, there is general agreement the federal timeframes proved untenable given the ambitious agendas undertaken by states, including tying teacher evaluations to student test scores on state exams. For example, Georgia struggled with how to rate the 70% of teachers in courses without standardized tests, devising the much maligned and since discarded SLOs (student learning objectives) that demanded extensive pre and post tests and fueled parent frustration over instructional time lost to testing.

Districts will have a lot of new federal dollars — for a while. They ought to avoid the pitfalls that come with relief funding, including launching programs and staff expansions they can’t sustain or setting so many lofty goals they end up with lots of aspirations and few accomplishments.

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