Perhaps the biggest change to the budget (that isn’t necessarily reflected in the budget itself) is President Biden’s historic signing of the American Rescue Plan Act, through which public K-12 education is set to receive $128 billion in federal aid, in addition to previous two rounds of ESSER funding via the CARES and CRRSA Acts, totaling more than $113 billion.
While federal funds aren’t part of the BPS general budget process itself — the School Committee has no authority over how those funds are allocated or spent — Boston Public Schools’ anticipated $283 million dollars from the American Rescue Plan has substantial implications for the district’s fiscal strategy over the next two years.
A Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity
Both the City of Boston and BPS have received considerable federal aid since March 2020. When totaling all the federal aid made available since then (including the estimated $283 million in ESSER 3 funds), BPS has approximately $461 million dollars — nearly half a billion — earmarked solely for education.
A half-billion-dollar investment is truly a once-in-a-generation opportunity for BPS.
Of the original $55.5 million the district received last year in both federal ESSER 1 funds and CARES Act dollars from the City of Boston, BPS has spent less than half of that aid so far (approximately $26 million) on summer and distance learning, health and safety expenditures including personal protective equipment, facilities upgrades, and family engagement and outreach.
In ESSER 2 funds, BPS has been awarded $123 million. At budget hearings over the last eight weeks, BPS presentations have indicated that only 35% (~$44.3 million) of ESSER 2 funds have been allocated for FY22. While the final award amount has not yet been announced by the state, BPS is poised to receive as much as $283m in ESSER 3 funds courtesy of the American Rescue Plan Act, more than double what it received in ESSER 2 funds.
It’s important to note that all of the ESSER funding made possible by the CARES, CRRSA, and American Rescue Plan Acts, respectively, are eligible to be allocated to costs backdated to March 2020 (FY20) and through September 2023 (into FY24).
It is up to districts to meet state grant deadlines to apply for any FY21 usage of ESSER 2 funds; the deadline to do so is March 31, 2021. BPS has not indicated it intends to apply any of the $123m in ESSER 2 funding for current FY21 efforts to return to schools for this school year.
(And even a full return this year remains in doubt, as Supt. Cassellius told The Boston Globe on Mar. 22 the district has applied for a waiver from recent state mandates in order to delay a full return to in-person instruction this spring.)
Federal Dollars at the Student Level
Once you start talking about numbers with more than one comma, it can be hard to conceptualize what half a billion dollars could really look like. The entire package of federal funds — that full $461 million dollars — breaks down to about $9,581 per BPS student.
Remember, this is in addition to the roughly $23,000 BPS already spends per student each year. Theoretically, BPS has approximately $32,500 per student for FY22 at their disposal if they leveraged the full amount of federal spending available to them. If they did, BPS per student spending would exceed the average cost of private school tuitions in Massachusetts by nearly $11,000.
To say that BPS has an opportunity to make systemic, lasting changes to benefit all K-12 students within the district is an understatement.
And yet, as billionaire business mogul Jack Ma has said, “Spending money is much more difficult than making money.” So far, BPS has either spent or has plans about how to spend just 15.2% of the available $9,581 per student in federal aid.
That leaves around $8,100 of federal aid per student still on the table, with no publicly-shared plan for what to do with all that money.
Building a Needs-Based, Research-Backed Plan for Recovery
But if you talk to BPS school leaders, as we have, they’ll tell you exactly what they could do with an influx of federal dollars to their school budgets. Here’s what some leaders had to offer:
“Train teachers on best practices to re-engage students back to in-person learning, how to foster a collaborative, productive, and welcoming environment.”
“We would prioritize mental health, [specifically] by allocating additional funds for students to receive small group time with a counselor (for students who are struggling with a transition back to schools). This counselor will work closely with students, families and teaching staff to ensure students transition back to in-person learning is successful and to address loss of social skills, trauma, and anxiety.”
“Money for substitute teachers to allow classroom teachers time to collaboratively plan units, focusing on the standards as they determine the best way to accelerate the learning using our current curriculum.”
“1:1 devices in each classroom at school so students can keep the devices they received during the pandemic at home.”
“Funding for each class to do an early-in-the-year experience that allows for students to reconnect with each other and with staff [such as local field trips] — something for everyone to help with reconnecting as a community.”
“With a year of remote learning, we want to really encourage the joy of reading, book choice, and literacy, with a specific push to have all students reading on grade level by grade 3.”
“Fund before and after school programs for enrichment and academic support to help students make the rapid gains they need.”
“Pay for counseling for families in crisis and are under-insured, have interrupted medical insurance, or are undocumented.”
“Purchase supplies and materials for students who for medical reasons may not [return] in-person in the Fall”
“[Conduct] a family needs assessment and let the results drive the use of funds.”
“[To address] significant social-emotional and behavior needs, we need to focus on classroom structures and routines, relationship building, and both prevention and crisis response through a lens of cultural responsiveness.”
“It would be amazing to be able to make such decisions… based on the unique needs and priorities of [our school]… given more financial resources.”
What these school leaders shared with us reflects not only the unique needs of their individual school communities, they echo the concerns of parents and families, too. In a recent MassINC poll, nearly two-thirds of parents surveyed said they are concerned about their child’s mental and emotional health. This same poll revealed most parents would support summer education programs to recoup pandemic learning losses.
What does currently available research offers in terms of best practices for pandemic recovery in schools?
EdResearch for Recovery, a project of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, is one of many education think tanks recommending individualized 1:1 high-frequency tutoring as a critical component of accelerated learning post-pandemic. When combined with expanded learning time programs before and after the school day and into the summer, as the Afterschool Alliance recommends, students could recoup learning loss from disrupted instruction, particularly for students of color who have experienced greater learning loss than their white peers.
There is a need for good data to drive informed, responsive decisions around recovery, as both our school leaders shared and NWEA has affirmed in a December 2020 report. And as our sample of BPS school leaders notes, these kinds of large-scale interventions require professional development for teachers to implement said interventions, as CPRE reiterated in a November 2020 report.
The cost of addressing social-emotional learning needs cannot be underestimated, either. In a city such as Boston, authentic, aligned community partnerships will be essential for the holistic recovery of schools, especially those neighborhoods most impacted by the pandemic, as the Center for Optimized Student Support at Boston College recommends.
Now Is Not the Time to Reinvent the Wheel
While most school districts have not released federal aid allocation plans, there are some who have — and their plans for federal aid have either spent or allocated substantial portions towards FY22 recovery priorities.
In Baltimore City Public Schools, it received $48 million in ESSER 1 funding last year. Of that, BCPS allocated $18 million just to keep vitally-needed city meal sites up and running. Another $15 million was spent on providing students with devices and wifi hotspots so students could remain connected as learning went remote.
Washington D.C. Public Schools announced last month that of the $80 million in ESSER 2 federal aid it’s expected to receive, $33 million will be allocated for academic interventions and small group tutoring. Wisely, $15 million will be set aside for teacher training to implement said interventions.
Just last week, Shelby County School District, which includes Memphis, Tennessee, announced its plans for the $170 million it will receive ESSER 2 aid: $101 million allocated to academic interventions, including summer school and $24 million budgeted for air quality improvements within its school buildings.
To claim that the needs and challenges of Boston are simply too unique and diverse to effectively replicate or adapt the solutions of other urban districts fails to see the bigger picture — or worse, fails to seize upon a half-billion-dollar opportunity for systemic change.
Finding Answers to Boston’s $461 Million Dollar Question
While the School Committee can’t tell BPS what to do with its federal aid, it would be prudent to probe the district on the specificity of its post-pandemic plans beyond the broad headers of “Return, Recover, Reimagine.”
School leaders need answers, too: how much of this $461 million will be controlled centrally, and how much will be left to the discretion of school leaders who know their communities most intimately?
And finally, when we look back at this strange time in our lives, after all the federal dollars have all been dispersed and spent — we have to ask: was the money spent well? Did the lives and outcomes of students improve?
These are the questions BPS must consider as it plans for how best to use its half a billion dollars — because the cost of anything but the affirmative to such questions far outweighs the amount any federal relief package could ever provide in our lifetimes.
The Boston School Committee will vote on the FY22 Budget this Wednesday, Mar. 24 at 5:00 PM Eastern. Head here for the Zoom webinar. Sign up here for Public Comment or submit your written testimony to firstname.lastname@example.org by 4:30 PM Eastern on Wednesday.
Even though the vote happens this week, our analysis of the FY22 BPS budget isn’t done yet, as it heads to a crucial next step: the Boston City Council. Make sure you’re following us here on Medium and are subscribed to our Friday newsletters so you don’t miss a post.
As always, we welcome your feedback and thoughts on our Budget Analysis Series; send us your questions and comments here.
About Boston Schools Fund
Founded in 2015, Boston Schools Fund is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that leverages grant-making, partnerships, data, and policy work to advance educational equity in Boston by providing opportunity and access to high-quality schools, particularly to those most underserved. Follow BSF on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Medium and sign up for our curated round-up of weekly education news in your inbox.