In summary

The massive influx of one-time federal aid should be used to make up for lost learning time and emotional setbacks students experienced when schools were closed during the pandemic.

By Chantal Lovell, Special to CalMatters

Chantal Lovell is communications director at the California Policy Center, chantal@calpolicycenter.org.

California schools are in for a payday, but there’s no word yet on how much of that money will actually be used to help students recover from extended school closures. 

In total, Golden State schools will receive $15.3 billion in additional funding, thanks to a series of federal aid packages aimed at restoring student learning time lost during the pandemic. The amount California school districts will receive varies widely, with dozens of charter schools receiving less than $100 in per-pupil relief funding, and schools in Butte, Nevada and San Luis Obispo counties receiving more than $70,000 one-time dollars per student. 

The Los Angeles Unified School District is poised to receive the greatest total sum: $4.7 billion, larger than the estimated total general fund expenditures for 13 states in 2020. This is more than $11,000 per student, beyond the $14,000 in Proposition 98 funding already allocated for each child.

Teachers unions know how they would spend the money: hiring more staff and giving members raises and additional paid training. Coincidentally, these recommendations are all more closely correlated with a bump in the union’s budget than with improved student outcomes. 

We should think twice before following the lead of organizations that did everything in their power to keep schools closed beyond what public health officials deemed necessary. At their hands, students — particularly minority children — suffered perhaps irreversible learning loss and emotional anguish. California’s windfall is intended to heal the hurt caused by unions’ refusal to reopen schools, not pad their pockets.

Here are five ways to use relief dollars to ensure that all students are poised for success without creating new, long-term burdens on California taxpayers. 

1. Targeted, supplemental education scholarships: Fund parent-controlled grants to supplement learning and bring students back up to grade level. These could include scholarships to students with disabilities who did not receive support services during the school closures or grants for trauma recovery to support children who have suffered the greatest mental and behavioral health effects. Education enrichment grants could help a broader population of students receive supplementary tutoring or activities.

2. Learning pods: During the pandemic, a new type of schooling popped up: learning pods. These small-group, multi-age instructional settings allowed students to receive an individualized education tailored to their unique needs and abilities. School districts could direct funding toward learning pod networks, or to the students who utilize them, ensuring students who are unable to return to class continue progressing in their education, rather than fall further behind.

3. Funding charter schools equitably: As noted, there’s a major disparity in relief funds for traditional public schools and public charter schools. California could fund charters directly or provide grants to students who attend them to help charters expand or incubate new schools.

4. Stipends to high-performing teachers who provide intensive tutoring: Relief funds also could incentivize California’s top teachers to dedicate more time at school and provide intensive tutoring to children who fell furthest behind during closures. Similarly, California could fund the creation of a marketplace of teachers that students could use to access top educators throughout the state, regardless of ZIP code.

5. Earn and learn programs: Relief funds may also expand work-based learning opportunities for high-schoolers by matching the wages employers pay students, thereby encouraging students to get jobs and develop lifelong career skills. Schools could also aid high-schoolers as they transition into college by partnering with community colleges to provide transition plans. 

There are numerous other student-centric ways the state and school districts can spend the federal relief headed their way. Parents will have an opportunity to view and comment on their districts’ proposed plans for this money in the coming months, and must act as watchdogs to ensure that it helps students who need it. 

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