Some of these challenges existed in districts that have been chronically underfunded long before COVID-19; challenges that were painfully exacerbated the last few years. These districts have the unjust burden of attracting and retaining top teacher talent into high-stakes education and care circumstances without the ability to offer commensurate teacher pay and wraparound support services. This injustice was only exacerbated when districts sought more staff with ESSER funding in a competitive labor market. Economically stable school districts are not grappling with the same high levels of staff recruitment and retention challenges, alongside student mobility, student needs, and enrollment fluctuation pressures. When it’s uncertain how many students you’ll have, what their needs will be, or who you will be able to recruit to work in your building, how can you possibly envision and budget for a long-term strategy? When viewed through this lens, it’s entirely understandable that the data is showing challenges with effective ESSER spending.
And yet, my fear is that these legitimate challenges may open up a dangerous conversation about whether or not our public school systems, particularly those serving high-need students, would benefit from increased funding. I am terrified that policymakers will come to the conclusion that ESSER spending has shown that more money doesn’t need to be part of the equation to closing achievement gaps.
That argument could not be more foolhardy. If ESSER is proving anything to us, it’s that many of the spending challenges reinforce the larger challenge of chronic underfunding, especially relative to student needs. What we are seeing is proof that sustained, increased funding matters if you want to develop the ability to use it effectively and invest in long-term, systematic solutions that create a lasting impact.
This will not be an easy or simple change to make. The federal government would need to reinvigorate its push to make permanent and substantial increases in recurring Title I funds for schools. While this would undoubtedly face an uphill political battle, doing so would alleviate the challenges created by ESSER’s one-time nature and allow school systems to consider the kind of long-term investments necessary to make measurable change.
Simultaneously, states must begin to invest the time and resources to build the knowledge and skills necessary to spend increased funding. They likewise must be unafraid of the political challenge of pursuing adequate funding, which at the state level often entails undoing a deeply ingrained school funding formula that relies on property taxes. And they must leverage data, both to assess the current gaps in funding and to determine what their ideal funding would look like.
The fact remains that eliminating achievement gaps that have been forged over decades of systematic disinvestment necessitates more money for our most historically underserved. We need to look carefully at what ESSER spending has taught us. It’s not that more money doesn’t matter but rather increasing our investments in the long-term is the only real way to allow for the necessary training, planning, and implementation to occur. That is what will truly make a difference for our students. A one-time drop in the bucket was never going to solve a chronic problem. ESSER gave us a head start in understanding the work necessary to make good use of adequate funds. The real lesson to be learned from ESSER is that we must double down on our pursuit of both equity and adequacy in school funding for those historically underserved in ways that are long-term, stable, and sustainable.
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