Use federal aid on students, not unions
Editor’s note: This column is an expansion of a piece the author previously published in CalMatters on July 22, 2021. You can read that piece here.
A massive battle is about to hit California school districts, and parents must prepare to fight for their students.
Through a series of federal relief packages passed in Washington, D.C. over the past year, California schools are receiving $15.3 billion in additional, one-time funding aimed at helping students recover learning lost during the extended school closures. For some schools, like those in Butte, Nevada, and San Luis Obispo counties, the per-pupil figures are nothing short of astounding: over $70,000 more per student. For many charter schools, the sum is less impressive, coming in at less than $100 in aid per student.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is receiving over $11,000 extra per child, amounting to over $4.7 billion. That’s more than 13 states spent on general fund expenditures last year, and will be added to the $14,000 in Proposition 98 funding already guaranteed per child.
For most schools – public charters aside, of course – the aid could truly help students. Unions, chiefly, the United Teachers Los Angeles, instead want to use it to further their agenda and transform public education in ways that serve adults more than children. Union President Cecily Myart-Cruz appears almost giddy when she talks about the possibilities for her organization’s bottom line. Unsurprisingly, her suggested expenditures– including hiring more staff, paid training, and raises – are more focused on funneling this money to UTLA’s accounts than helping students get back up to grade level.
It’s no secret that students have suffered severe academic and mental health turmoil by being forced to stay home and sit behind a screen for 15 months. Numerous studies have found minority students experienced even greater hardship than their peers, and that the longer schools were closed, the greater the achievement gap became. Parents, more than anyone, know this and have an important role to play in ensuring every penny of this relief is used to undo the damage caused by the UTLA and its ilk. To allow the organizations who created the need for this aid to profit from it would be akin to giving the arsonist firefighter a bonus.
Solutions for students
While there are many student-focused ways districts and the State of California may spend this money, perhaps the cleanest and most direct route to ensure proper use is by issuing parent-controlled, targeted, supplemental education scholarships. Through these accounts, parents could pay for enrichment activities and tutoring to help their children make up for some of the learning they missed out on over the past year. Students with disabilities could especially benefit from such supplements, which would allow them to receive the support services they likely did not get during the virtual school year. Such scholarships could even be used to help children work through the emotional and mental health trauma experienced as a result of the closures. Scholarships like these are overwhelmingly popular with parents and would ensure the aid goes directly to students who need it. They would be a one-time expenditure that guarantees taxpayers aren’t on the hook for legacy expenses.
Generally speaking, there’s a major disparity in funding going to traditional public schools and public charter schools,. But, the state can reverse its decision in 2020 to cap spending on charter school options and allocate some of the dollars within its control to charters, helping them expand or incubate new schools. Given the reality that charter schools and their pupils fared far better than other students during the pandemic, allocating some funds to create additional charter school seats is another way to directly help California kids.
Parents, particularly those concerned that the Delta variant may lead unions to close schools again this fall, or whose children may not be able to attend in-person due to California’s student mask mandate, may consider urging their districts to fund learning pods. Learning pods are a new structure for schooling that popped up during the pandemic to help children continue their education while classrooms were closed. In these small-group, multi-grade settings, parents can hire tutors or trade teaching duties amongst themselves outside a traditional classroom or virtual setting. The federal aid may be used to help pods partner with established, virtual charter schools, with the former providing the instruction and the latter providing curriculum.
While parents should be cautious of proposals that send money to adults rather than students, there are indeed ways to spend aid dollars that will directly benefit students, while compensating teachers and staff for their additional investment. One such example are stipends offered to the highest performing teachers to provide intensive tutoring, either in-person, or one-on-one virtually. (While a virtual setting may not work for many students, it can help students access the best educators in the state, regardless of their location). Undoubtedly, students are going to need more attention in the coming year to overcome learning gaps, and quality teachers should be compensated for stepping up to the challenge.
There are numerous other ways districts and the state can spend this one-time money to directly benefit students, without putting taxpayers on the hook for future, recurring costs. But, it’s unlikely to happen without a fight, as unions are already lobbying districts to spend the money in ways that will add to their bottom line year after year.
What parents can do
- Parents should start by researching how much their student’s school or district is getting, and understanding what that amounts to in per-pupil dollars; students should receive services amounting to that allocation. Search funding here.
- Think about their student’s academic situation and the degree to which they are behind and what needs to be done to get back on track. What would serve the child best? Solutions allowed with the funding can be found here.
- Keep an eye on local teachers unions to understand the recommendations they will be lobbying for with the local school board. Will their recommended expenditures help students?
- Regularly check in with the local school district, which is required to publish its draft spending plan, likely by late August. The plan may be called the School District Use of Funds Plan, or the ARP ESSER Local Educational Agency Plan, and the district is required to accept public comment while drafting the plan.
- Take advantage of the public comment portion of school board meetings to make their voices heard. Even before draft plans are published, parents may provide input to their district leaders on how best to serve students.