How to spend public money on education (opinion)

Pedro Noguera, the dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, and I recently started a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and identify common ground on some of the thorniest issues in education. I thought readers might enjoy reading excerpts from these conversations from time to time. Today, as the pandemic recedes, schools are tasked with spending much of the COVID relief aid still in their coffers, and observers wonder how much of that money has been spent, Pedro and I let’s think about how to spend money on education most effectively.

-grinding wheel

grinding wheel: Given all the COVID aid we’ve seen Washington pour into schools over the past two years, a figure that’s increased by more than $200 billion, I have serious concerns about whether those dollars are spent wisely or well. Where are you on this question?

Pedro: I think we both share a certain skepticism about how public money is spent, and I think that’s healthy. I think it’s important, especially at the local and state level, for people to be vigilant. We all know that there are so many examples of wasteful, excessive, or poor spending. At the same time, education is a labor-intensive field that requires us to invest in people if we are to achieve better results. We just have to make sure that we make the right investments in my opinion.

grinding wheel: I am with you there. We need to rethink how money is spent in schools. Eighty percent of school money is spent on people: salaries, benefits, all that. If there was something that said, “Look, we have a pension challenge that’s eating up a lot of dollars; we don’t want to just pump money and let it trickle out of the bucket into retiree benefits. So part of the solution, I think, is that if we want to make money, it has to be part of a longer-term solution in the system. I could see spending $100 billion to $200 billion and saying, “Okay, I’m not crazy about this, but I get what we buy in the long run.”

Pedro: Yes, and I think that’s where if there was more bipartisanship, there would be, I think, good controls on the use of funds. I agree that the pension problem is huge, and it’s not just the school systems; we have police services, we have the whole public sector struggling with this pension system. I don’t know what the long-term solution is, but we need one — because we will still need a public sector. But I think the other branches of government really need to be vigilant about how the money is spent. What I’m concerned about is that if the federal money that districts receive is misspent or spent on things that clearly don’t benefit children, people might say, “Districts can’t be trusted to spend public funds wisely, and we should not allow that to happen again. »

grinding wheel: And then I think we have to think about where exactly the money is being spent. If we have kids who are massively away from school, I don’t think just putting them in class for five hours a day this summer is a promising solution. And yet, I fear that many efforts to address learning loss amount to doing more than we are used to.

Pedro: No, I agree. In the meantime, one area that I think would be a wise investment is tutoring. There are many children who need the direct human contact of a mentor, and a teacher with 25 to 30 children will not be able to provide this for children who are very behind. So tutors, well-trained tutors who can work in small groups with children, I think would be a good investment. But I think there are other ways to spend the money well that could have a positive impact.

grinding wheel: It seems that for those of us on the right and on the left, who truly believe in investing money in education, there should be a natural win-win here. There seems to be a natural common interest, left and right, in getting good reports on how dollars are actually being used.

Pedro: There needs to be advice, guidance and accountability from the states on spending. They can’t just say it depends on the districts. We have experience here in California with what they call the local control funding formula. It’s an equity-based funding plan, and districts get money; if you have more high needs kids, you get more money. And what we’ve seen from the research is that some districts know very well how to use it, and many don’t. And sometimes it’s spent in a very questionable way. So you know I’m all for local control, but it has to come with direction and responsibility.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Rick and Pedro Common Ground Podcast.

Comments are closed.