It looks like an invitation to squander billions of dollars in federal funds and with them the opportunity of a lifetime: Congress just sent $1.9 billion to S.C. schools, along with nearly unlimited discretion over how to spend the money, practically no oversight and a June deadline to lay out their plans.
Under the terms of the American Rescue Plan passed in March, schools only have to use 20% of that money to catch up kids who lost ground during the pandemic. And when you combine it with $1 billion in more restricted federal funding S.C. schools already received in the first two COVID-relief packages, that should be enough to make up for a year of disrupted learning.
That means schools will have a lot of money they can use to go beyond getting kids back to where they would have been without a pandemic, all the way to where they should have been if we had been providing them with the type of education we need all S.C. kids to have.
Or they can squander the money on frills or mismanage it on badly imagined or implemented programs or just plow it into providing more of the same thing that hasn't been working for so many kids.
Unfortunately, the federal law gave S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman no control over how school districts spend the money. But as The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox reports, she’s trying to influence their priorities by offering matching funds to districts that focus on proven approaches such as engaging, enriching summer learning, one-on-one tutoring and yearlong programs before and after normal school hours.
That’s a smart idea, but Ms. Spearman needs to do more.
Many districts simply don’t have the capacity to imagine, develop and implement transformative programs quickly, if at all. She needs to offer as much guidance and support as districts will accept, and do it right away — for instance providing how-to webinars featuring school leaders who have implemented afterschool and summer programs with proven track records; helping school and district leaders form partnerships with nonprofits to work together on those programs; and encouraging and facilitating multidistrict partnerships.
And districts need to accept that help and to reach out on their own to develop those partnerships. It's essential for superintendents to develop good plans to improve teaching and expand learning — and not just use the money to buy new equipment or off-the-shelf learning programs or pay for wish-list infrastructure items.
It's essential for their school boards to let them use the money in ways that will make a difference for kids, rather than ways that enrich the chairman’s brother-in-law.
There are plenty of places in South Carolina to look for good ideas. TransformSC has been working with schools and districts across the state since 2013 to design and implement project-based learning, Montessori, online-enhanced education and other transformative approaches to learning. Furman University’s Riley Institute identifies successful education initiatives every year through its WhatWorksSC Award program, with winners and runners-up serving as models for anyone looking for ideas to borrow.
It’ll be up to all of us to hold school districts accountable for taking advantage of what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That starts with making it clear that the status quo ante is not acceptable.
The federal money is enough to do a reset — to create targeted programs that will bring kids back not just to where they would have been without the pandemic but to where they should have been. We must demand nothing less.