The $1.9 billion in emergency cash the Congress appropriated this spring for S.C. schools amounts to about 10% of the total local, state and federal funding they already spend — or just 3% if you average it out over the 40 months they have to spend it.
That doesn’t sound like much of a bump, but it can be transformational — if they spend it wisely.
That’s because unlike nearly all the other money schools receive, the latest and largest round of COVID-relief funding comes with practically no strings attached. And that means creative school leaders can use it to implement bold new programs that, once established, would cost little if any more to continue than the programs that are failing so many kids today.
The key, according to the man who probably knows more than any other South Carolinian about spending education money well, is for officials to think big and bring in community partners and teachers to help imagine and implement the changes.
Think creating dual-enrollment, early college, entrepreneurship and apprenticeship programs, which have proven to engage struggling high school students. Most schools don’t offer them because it costs time and money to build partnerships with technical colleges and employers, develop the courses and prepare staff, but once those upfront costs are covered and the programs are up and running, they’re basically self-sustaining.
In elementary and middle school, think infusing Montessori, arts integration, foreign languages or project-based learning into the curriculum. That likewise requires up-front investments in professional development, coaching and materials and two or three years of transition, but it results in students who are more engaged, score better on standardized tests and are prepared to succeed in high school and beyond.
Think extending the learning opportunities well into the afternoons and the school year into the summer, and providing programs kids actually want: literacy camps, youth employment programs that include a classroom component, computer programming and digital design courses that incorporate reading and math skills, and field trips — with related reading assignments before and after — to museums, technical colleges and local businesses, which no one has time to offer now.
They're out of reach if you don’t have a single extra penny to spare but imminently doable with an extra 3% — less in the wealthier districts whose kids don’t need as much extra help and more in the poorer districts where they all do.
I can't claim credit for these ideas. I got them from Terry Peterson, who wrote Dick Riley’s Education Improvement Act, helped Gov. Riley run the federal Education Department and has transformed himself into one of the nation's top experts in after-school and summer learning. He's currently working with eight states to figure out the best use of their share of the American Rescue Plan funding — funding that wasn’t even on most districts’ radar two weeks ago and for which they have to develop spending plans by June.
The essential goal of the funding is to catch kids up for all the learning they lost during the pandemic — hence the imperative to start spending money immediately, preferably for muscular summer programs. But there’s enough to do more than that, which makes it an incredible opportunity in South Carolina, where so many kids will still be far behind even if we get them back to their pre-COVID status.
Given the fast-approaching deadline for plans and the absence of any state or federal oversight, the biggest danger is that this incredible opportunity will be squandered — even in districts such as Charleston and Greenville that have capable leaders dedicated to serving students.
Dr. Peterson recently advised a group of Ohio principals to imagine they’re applying for a $2 million grant to change their school day and afterschool programs, and instead of a 60-page grant application, they could write a 2-page plan. And by the way, the check’s already in the mail.
“We can actually use this money to change the school day and after-school and summers,” he told me earlier this week. “Not everybody will do that, but some will. They have to be given permission and really nudged to be told it’s not only OK to think out of the box; it’s an expectation.”
Another expectation should be bringing in business and community leaders, and particularly organizations that are already running creative learning programs, to get ideas and buy-in: “Sit down and figure out five or six things we should do in the school day, two or three after school, two or three in the summer, that we’re proud of.” And start immediately. “Something I’ve watched for many years is most every group comes up with recommendations over six meetings,” he said. “They can happen over a half a year, or they can happen over six weeks or six days.”
As his work with principals suggests, Dr. Peterson believes that programs should be designed from the bottom up as much as possible.
Districts might set the broad parameters — use two-thirds the money to strengthen and improve teaching and learning, divided evenly among elementary, middle and high schools, for example, and divide the other third between new summer and after-school programs. But each school could have a contest for programs to try — “Educators are really clever people if you give them a chance” — and then share their best ideas.
Dr. Peterson didn’t exactly dismiss my concern that many S.C. districts weren’t capable of managing the money well, but he did note that "there has not been any significant new money in 30 years unless they applied for a big grant and got it, so they haven’t been challenged.”
Thanks to the pandemic, and a Congress that wasn’t thinking about the challenges in many S.C. districts when it designed the program, that’s about to change. In a big way.