THANKS TO A windfall of $1.8 billion in the latest round of federal COVID relief funding intended to help schools recover from the last two years of interrupted learning, we have an historic opportunity to transform public education in Massachusetts.
Yet millions of federal dollars sit untapped in the state’s coffers, and if funds aren’t used by 2024, they expire. Unless there are plans set in motion – today – for this money to support students, we will continue to deny them the education they deserve after two of the most challenging years of their lives.
This isn’t an opportunity to be squandered, especially when decades of data prove that Massachusetts should not rest on its laurels of topping national lists for educational outcomes. The most valuable lesson of the pandemic may be the need for greater urgency in addressing the stark and disparate outcomes for students of color, low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities across our great state.
Some public school students have the good fortune to receive everything they need in their classrooms on a daily basis – essential support, academic rigor, and access to extracurriculars and enrichment. Far too many other students and families–particularly across some urban zip codes–must fight for a just and equitable education. They frequently attend schools in disrepair that lack a well-rounded education–one where they would be as challenged and supported as their suburban peers.
With the federal relief funds earmarked for every school district, now is the moment for this transformative change. By using these federal funds along with new state aid under the Student Opportunity Act, Massachusetts leaders have the chance to alter the landscape for all students, with a keen focus on those who are too often found on the bottom of every data chart.
The federal government distributed the final round of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act earlier this year, but Boston has used only 10 percent of its nearly $280 million allocation. Similarly, Lawrence has spent just $5.4 million of the $54 million available to its schools; Lowell only $4 million of its $40 million; Fall River $3.9 million of $39 million; and New Bedford just $4.7 million of the $47 million available to it. Astonishingly, the cities of Brockton and Springfield have tapped into exactly 0 percent of their $34 million and $156 million allotments, respectively. These figures beg the question: What are they waiting for?
There are some legitimate reasons why districts may not have tapped into these funds yet. Massachusetts already received over $1 billion for schools in the first two rounds of COVID relief funding, so districts may still be spending this down. And even those looking to spend this money quickly have run into roadblocks including supply chain issues, delaying school building safety upgrades and technology purchases, and staffing shortages, limiting the hiring of staff from substitute teachers and bus drivers to tutors and school counselors.
Yet amidst an awakening focused on racial and economic justice, these funds must be used urgently to address the long-standing inequities that plagued our schools before March 2020. Let’s deploy high dosage tutoring where it’s needed most. Let’s address the ongoing mental health crisis among students of all ages by ensuring that schools have social workers and psychologists, and strong partnerships with local mental health agencies and hospitals. Let’s reimagine summer school programming that focuses both on academics and enrichment, while dramatically increasing the number of students invited to attend. And let‘s ensure that our teachers and school leaders, who have faced tremendous challenges over these past two years, have the support they need to educate our children to the best of their ability.
Developing these critical investments and implementing them in alignment with research- based best practices takes time, but the onus is on district officials to clearly communicate their plans—not just hiding a PowerPoint on their websites—and demonstrate their impact on student achievement and wellbeing.
Without this transparency, and based on how districts are using prior COVID relief money, it’s easy to assume districts are using these funds to either tinker at the margins or reinvest in the status quo, neither of which will suffice. With a three-year window to spend this funding, we should not strive to return to the old “normal” or set aside funds for future projects or emergencies. Instead, our focus should be on building better, stronger schools, with supports in place to ensure every student is successful, regardless of their zip code or background. That should be the legacy we strive to achieve.
This commentary has been updated with additional information about the first two rounds of federal COVID-related funding for education.
Mary Tamer is the state director for Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts and is a former member of the Boston School Committee.