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What will be the bang for Maryland’s new education bucks?| COMMENTARY

Johnnie McLain, a fifth grade student at Churchville Elementary School, shares his experience of in-person learning from a less populated classroom, at the school on Thursday, Oct. 22.
Johnnie McLain, a fifth grade student at Churchville Elementary School, shares his experience of in-person learning from a less populated classroom, at the school on Thursday, Oct. 22. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

It may seem, at long last, like money is raining down on our underfunded public schools. Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the landmark Blueprint for Maryland’s Future funding has been overridden. A trifecta of federal COVID-19 relief and recovery packages is here or on its way (the two so far total over $1 billion in aid to Maryland schools). On top of that, the General Assembly has already enacted a supplemental budget bill, in advance of the full state budget, that adds $150 million in state funds for schools.

But now comes the hard part. What will be the bang for the new education bucks? The outlook is cloudy. It seems likely that there will be enough money to pay for safely reopening schools, including protective equipment, virus testing and ventilation. But will there be enough money to enable students, especially those who are poor and of color, to recover from learning loss?

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Unfortunately, the answer is clearly no, if we mean get up to or near grade level in reading and math. Any other expectations are wishful thinking since about 60% of all public school students were below proficiency before the pandemic. Most Black and brown students were already many grades behind and have fallen much deeper in the hole since the pandemic.

So, how can the funds be spent in a way that maximizes student progress? Here, too, there are problems. The biggest difficulty is the short life of the relief funding. The first principle of relief is to spend it quickly, and that applies to reopening schools. Yet, applied to instructional programs, speed must be balanced with the need to avoid temporary Band-Aids that will have fleeting impact on the most vulnerable students.

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The first wave of federal funds last year, the CARES Act, is a dramatic example: $100 million of it was earmarked by the state for tutoring, but had to be spent on tutoring completed by the end of 2020, even though the funding wasn’t available until June. Schools had no time to plan, much less deliver effective instruction, and also had to worry about sustaining the tutoring after the federal funds ran out. Local school districts did the best they could, but the tutoring expenditures were mainly improvised in haste.

It is possible to do better. A school finance expert warned that the new money won’t pay off “using the same structures and the same ways of organizing people, time and money” as done before. The key is to implant the funding as much as possible into regular classroom instructional reforms like those in the blueprint.

This can begin with the second round of finalized federal funding, which provides longer timelines for spending and more flexibility. There’s ample room for nimble grant management so the federal funds can be mixed and matched with other revenue streams, including the blueprint funding.

To make this happen, the General Assembly must withstand the pressure to scatter the money around quickly to satisfy competing program providers. Rather, legislators should follow the science about how to get the most bang for the bucks. That means mainly tutoring and includes not cutting the large increase for tutoring in the governor’s budget.

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There are other worthy competitors, among them: summer school, after-school and wraparound services. Still, as the national Institute for Educational Sciences recently confirmed, tutoring is far ahead of the pack and, as another report noted, “can even lead to greater social and motivational outcomes.”

The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) must also rise to the occasion. It can creatively work with and around federal provisions that unduly favor speed at the expense of effective instruction. And it has the power to ensure that the funding, short- and long-term, is spent on program models (in tutoring and other programs) that are research based.

Most important, this includes requiring the programs, to the extent possible, to be seamlessly integrated into the regular school curricula. For example, the tutoring, especially in the early grades, should be delivered within the framework of interventions for struggling learners that all schools should already be using.

In the process, MSDE can counter the widespread criticism that it has failed to provide local districts with clear guidance (like on reopening schools) and to hold itself and local school districts sufficiently accountable for school reform.

If the General Assembly and MSDE meet these challenges, chalk it up as lessons in how to not let a crisis go to waste. The COVID-19 relief and recovery funding, if boldly and astutely managed, can inform and strengthen the path to realization of the blueprint.

Kalman R. Hettleman (khettleman@gmail.com) a former member of the Kirwan Commission and the Baltimore City school board, is an education policy analyst and advocate.

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