The Arizona school year is winding down, but when summer break starts the real work begins for schools across the state as they continue to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic.
As teachers, students and their families eagerly wait to hear when they will return to the classroom, education policy wonks, advocates and school districts are trying to figure out how they’ll spend coming federal money. While there is no concrete plan yet, the Department of Education and a group of stakeholders are trying to meet as many needs as they can.
Arizona is getting $1.6 billion from the CARES Act, $536 million of which is tailored for education and $277 of which will be given from the feds to the state Department of Education and then given to school districts. Of that $277 million, 90% of it must be distributed to districts and charters and spent by them, while the remaining 10% is mostly reserved for the department to spend on state-level relief efforts, and half of a percent is for the department’s operational costs.
Department of Education spokeswoman Morgan Dick said those conversations with district and county superintendents, a handful of education advocacy groups and the Governor’s Office are “on-going” and the state is figuring out how to “best leverage” that money. Dick said once the districts have the money, it is expected to be spent on a range of priority areas including supporting tribal communities, supporting “social-emotional needs” and feeding students, as well as online learning resources in classrooms and in communities.
That shared priority of expanding online learning is good news for Dawn Penich-Thacker, co-founder and spokeswoman for Save Our Schools, a group dedicated to limiting the expansion of school vouchers. The group is not among those working with the department, but Penich-Thacker said the need for a stronger “digital infrastructure” and need to fix a digital divide was apparent in the education community before the pandemic.
The longer the pandemic drags on, the more obvious this need and others become.
“This pandemic just makes this all the more clear,” Penich-Thacker said. “You can design wonderful at-home learning activities … but we have too many students who don’t have the internet to do that work when they’re home.”
Since Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman indefinitely cancelled in-person instruction statewide in March, schools have had to improvise and provide for students who lack internet access.
Another priority her group has is advocating to ensure there are no “bailouts” for private schools that don’t need the assistance and that the money instead goes to poorer schools that are failing exclusively because of their socioeconomic and systematic disadvantage. That idea should not be so controversial to agree upon, Penich-Thacker said, as it would be the same principle as Ducey’s Project Rocket that failed to launch along with dozens of his other legislative priorities.
“It really is as simple as giving those schools more money,” Penich-Thacker said. “They know what they need, rather than forcing them to do something that bureaucrats have decided they need.”
Title I schools and those in rural areas would be top of mind for Penich-Thacker. Dick said the money will be distributed to districts and charters based on “need” and already incurred expenses, and the intricacies of that are still being discussed internally with the Governor’s Office.
That “need” is defined by a district or charter’s share of Title I funds, and most school districts have some population of Title I eligible students. The department will use some of its 9.5% allocation to provide some funding for technical education districts and charters that don’t get federal money.
That assistance for those outlying districts was something Chris Kotterman, director of government relations for the Arizona School Boards Association, one of the groups that is looped into these discussions, had wanted clarity on. For the majority of districts that do get federal money, Kotterman said the group expects schools with more Title I students to get most of it, which could affect districts that have fewer Title I students and have legitimate budgetary needs – which the department also aims to fix.
“There’s a little bit of a disparity in distribution,” Kotterman said. “So if you find yourself as a district, you’re in such a good spot, that you actually don’t receive any title one money, then you can still qualify for some money to offset your expenses.”
This money will help schools offset expenses, but it is just one-time money going toward problems that might continue to linger after the pandemic.
“It’s not ongoing revenue, it’s one time, so the issues that we still had systemically before this, like salaries and things like that are still ongoing,” Kotterman said.
What concerns Kotterman’s group and others is the possibility that the Legislature could supplant the money, something others, like David Lujan, director of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, are keeping a close eye on.
In an April Joint Legislative Budget Committee meeting on the state’s gloomy economic forecast, the possibility of supplanting that money for ongoing general fund expenditures for K-12 was brought up. Lujan said that federal money should be seen as new money, particularly since public schools in Arizona have less money today than they did before the Great Recession.
“We’re still trying to catch up from the last economic downturn,” Lujan said. “I think whatever is done with those monies, we should be making sure that their new investments are not just simply being used to supplant ongoing spending.”
Lujan said while there are other options to fund ongoing spending, like a healthy near-billion dollar rainy day fund. If schools are inadvertently shorted for being given this federal money, it could make absorbing and adapting to these expenses they’ve had to incur because of the pandemic even harder, Lujan said.
When students do return, Lujan said, schools will likely have fewer kids in the classroom and might need to hire more support staff, but purchase more technology, equipment and materials to adjust to however running a school will look like in the fall.
When the pandemic subsides and school bells ring again, students and teachers will not only return to the classroom, but will face the same problems they faced before the pandemic.
It’s illuminating long-known shortfalls in state schools and systematic issues that won’t be resolved with one-time funding and there are new costs for problems brought by the pandemic, Kotterman said. Fixing them and the many interconnected issues that follow is proving to be a game of whack-a-mole.
“One of the frustrating things about this whole process, and it’s played out across all of government, is every time you encounter an obstacle, you make a decision to overcome that obstacle and then there’s a cascading number of decisions behind that that need to be made,” Kotterman said. “This is not unique to education, but we’re sort of in the spotlight.”l