Let schools, not district offices, decide how to spend some federal aid

Pushing dollars directly to individual schools would increase transparency, public engagement

Illustration of coins falling into a school-shaped piggy bank

District leaders are under pressure to wisely—and quickly—spend an unprecedented pot of federal education relief aid to support students and their learning. Leaders are weighing top-down, systemwide summer programs, high-dose tutoring and more. But there’s another obvious and thoughtful option to consider: giving some of those dollars directly to schools to decide how best to spend on behalf of their students.

Why would leaders consider this move as a piece of their spending puzzle? Well, it delivers in all the ways that matter: it’s intentionally equitable, transparent, and designed to foster community engagement regarding customizing the use of the funds.

Here’s what that could look like: on average, districts got some $2,400 per pupil. A district could choose to allocate a portion of those funds directly to schools like this:

$600 per student

+$400 per economically disadvantaged student

+$400 per English learner

Each school would then have a flexible sum that could be deployed in ways that meet the specific needs of their students.

A few districts, like Atlanta, Chicago and Denver, have already embraced the option to dole out a portion of their federal relief funds to schools. But so far, they’re a conspicuous minority. In this last pandemic year, we’ve seen firsthand the district habit to default to making one-size-fits-all centralized spending decisions on behalf of schools. It’s a habit worth reconsidering.

Rather than crafting a spending plan filled with new district-run programs, new system-wide staffing allocations, and across-the-board changes to schedules and planning time, districts could give a portion of the one-time funds to schools to use in ways that work best for their students, parents, and staff.

Allocating a portion of the funds in this way ensures that the dollars are deployed equitably across schools. And that’s important, because equity may not be guaranteed with some district-run programs. Take for instance a plan to add a counselor to every middle school, regardless of school size and student needs. Such a plan could unintentionally drive more dollars per pupil to smaller schools or even more affluent schools. Or where districts use a “peanut butter” strategy to reduce all class sizes by two, they may find they did little to target resources to the students with the greatest needs.

Sending dollars to schools in per-pupil increments helps with transparency, too. These per-student investments are easily recognizable: no fuzzy math required. Any principal, parent or community member can easily see and understand where the federal aid is going when it’s distributed via student count and types. And that transparency matters. In a recent national survey, 91% of parents said it was very important for schools in their state to be transparent with the public about how the new federal dollars are spent.

This approach can also enable more meaningful public engagement. Districts are required to seek community input on their plans to spend these federal funds. Pushing some aid directly to schools could tap authentic input at the place where that community is already engaged. We know the district central office isn’t the part of the system where families are most connected; that connection is with their schools. Moving a portion of the relief funds to schools could provide more opportunities for families to speak up on how these dollars help their students.

Since schools—not district central offices—are the places where learning happens, principals are often more attuned to what their students (and families) need. Empowering school leaders with spending choices could result in more nuanced—and ultimately more effective—approaches to accelerating student learning. So, a school filled with English learners could focus on deeper investments in language support; a school with significant community trauma could hire a social worker.

And, principals know the strengths and weaknesses of their staff. Principals know what interventions and tradeoffs the school community will get behind and which ones could fall flat.

Some districts may be uncomfortable with the idea of having different schools make different choices with their federal funds. And yes—rather than uniformity, districts would have to accept varied approaches across their schools. But that’s part of the point. If there’s any hope that this massive infusion of flexible funds will spark some innovation, that’s more likely to happen at the building level where individuals don’t carry the responsibility of serving the entire system, and needn’t factor in the larger politics of each choice made. Principals are well positioned to spark potential innovations, leveraging neighborhood-specific community partners in new ways or offering existing staff added pay to take on extra duties to support students and families.

The pandemic has roiled pretty much everything in education. That includes student enrollment, which in turn determines the funding and/or staffing a school gets. Here again, we’re seeing some districts manage the effects of enrollment flux by central fiat, using a portion of the federal aid to buffer schools from the losses (financial or staffing) that would otherwise come with decreased enrollment. But this is an area where schools can thread the needle themselves. Letting schools choose whether to apply their per-student allocations to mitigate losses means they own the decisions about redirecting their staff, adjusting programs, and making tradeoffs that both meet the needs of their students and account for longer-term enrollment shifts in the building.

This recommendation may make some district leaders uncomfortable. Why turn over their responsibilities to the principals they supervise? Is that even allowable? (Yes!)

We get it. Central offices are tasked with making decisions. And they’re supposed to submit plans for how this money gets spent. But that doesn’t prohibit them from submitting a plan that simply spells out how they will apportion those dollars across schools. Passing some federal education relief dollars directly to schools represents a real opportunity to let our school leaders lead.

Marguerite Roza is research professor at Georgetown University and director of Edunomics Lab. Jessica Swanson is a senior research fellow at Edunomics Lab and former deputy chief of finance, Office of Resource Strategy, at D.C. Public Schools.

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