With Budget Cuts Looming, Here’s How Districts Will Decide What to Keep or Cut

Jun 16, 2020

There is no other way to put it: The reopening of schools after COVID-19 is going to be expensive.

First and foremost, new health and safety measures must be in place. That means implementing new procedures for disinfecting facilities, purchasing personal protective equipment, and implementing new protective protocols. Add to that the costs of designing and implementing new remote learning programs, on top of childcare, transportation, and everything else that will inevitably increase the cost of doing business.

The numbers are staggering. The superintendents association (AASA) estimates the new health and safety expenses alone could cost each district an extra $1.7 million. The Learning Policy Institute calculates the cost of distance learning at about $500 per student for a total of $3.7 billion. All in, the American Federation of Teachers, the labor union, tallies the national cost at an extra $116.5 billion for all public schools, at least.

As if these costs and the related work weren’t enough, budget crunches from historic revenue losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic are looming. Either this year or next, almost every school board will have to pare down its expenses and decide what programs to keep and what to cancel. Then when economies recover school boards will restore their investments.

This budget crisis begs a question: What policies can provide some level of predictability to the changes and help ensure that students, especially low-income and at-risk students, get the most out of each district program investment?

Here are five existing policies that policymakers and local officials are likely to lean on to ensure that funds are used effectively, with regard to investments in remote learning programs and services.

Evidence-based Investments

There is a long-standing interest in spending academic intervention funds on programs with a record of success. The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, for example, limits the use of school-improvement funds to interventions that benefit student learning as documented by at least one well-designed and well-implemented research study. Some states, such as Nevada, also restrict the use of state supplemental academic intervention funds to programs that meet federal research standards and are elevating the importance of evidence-based and high-quality instructional materials.

To date, these requirements have been more of a compliance exercise than practical guides to good investments. But that’s likely to change when budgets get tight. Examples of districts that embed practical evidence-based analysis into their program evaluation and budget cycles include efforts such as Jefferson County Public Schools’ Cycle-based Budgeting program and Schenectady City School’s return on investment review. These efforts will garner attention and illustrate how such practices can better align academic and financial outcomes during a budget crunch.

Edtech Usage

Concerns about underutilized edtech programs and poorly understood instructional practices were percolating prior to the pandemic. The sudden transition to remote learning has added urgency to the matter, especially now that school officials rely on students’ software usage and engagement to gauge program quality in the absence of traditional measures, like assessments.

That’s where policies like Utah’s Digital Teaching and Learning Initiative will likely play a more significant role. The initiative requires schools to measure whether students and teachers are utilizing the technology at the intended amount and if the outcomes match expectations. That data is then fed into program and budget review cycles. This type of policy—an effective utilization policy—will likely gain traction as school officials take a closer look at the benefit and value of their remote learning programs.

Parent and Family Engagement

As schools roll out remote learning plans this fall, parent and family engagement will be even more important. Schools need engaged parents to make remote learning work, but that’s not going to happen without providing more support and training in the coming months. This is especially true for families with few resources.

“Now, more than ever, we need to help families to support learning at home,” says Vito Borrello, the executive director of the National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement. “As a part of this, schools should invest in services that build the relationship between educators and families.” How vendors and programs embed parent and family engagement into remote learning technology and plans may be an important differentiator in the coming years.

Price Transparency

Cost-effective decisions require clear service pricing, but that has been elusive for education technology. A 2017 survey by the Technology for Education Consortium found that school officials paid a wide range of prices for similar products and applications. Frequently purchased supplemental math and reading digital applications varied by as much as 20 percent; some districts got good deals, but most did not.

This lost purchasing power matters not only as a budgetary issue, but because schools are about to spend billions more on remote learning programs that need to help teachers stem the growing learning gaps made worse by COVID-19.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) offers an approach to price transparency to consider. A decade ago, schools couldn’t get clear information on the price for internet and telecommunications services from providers. Poorer districts often paid the highest prices. In response, the FCC issued an order requiring these companies to publish clear, accurate, and truthful information. With that data, the nonprofit EducationSuperhighway built a pricing tool for schools that let school officials see what their peers were paying for high-speed internet.

“Price transparency and the Compare and Connect K-12 tool took the burden of price hunting and negotiation off of school officials,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperhighway. “It sped up the budget processes and provided the momentum schools needed to close the connectivity gap. It is possible that price transparency for edtech pricing could lead to a similar market improvement.”

Expenditure Transparency

It’s important to know how money is spent and where it goes. With regard to the latter, there are new requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act that require school-level expenditure reports. These reports will show actual personnel and non-personnel expenditures on a school-level by each funding source (federal, state, and local funds). In response to COVID-19, Congress authorized Secretary DeVos to waive many ESSA requirements, but not this one.

This policy will be helpful because it requires district officials to consider the allocation of funds and resources across their schools and whether that distribution aligns with the district’s professed values and investment priorities. “As states face shrinking revenues and districts anticipate smaller budgets,” says Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, “district leaders will use this information to reflect on their budget and spending decisions.”

These five policies can help school officials with difficult budget decisions in the coming months. Are they the only ones? No, but they are very well positioned to improve the use of funds and create common frameworks that can make the cuts—and subsequent investments—more predictable.


Other news