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Chairman Scott to School Leaders: Spend Wisely

  • Heralding a massive infusion of federal funding to public schools, U.S. Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott cautioned leaders of the nation’s largest urban systems to spend the money wisely—and get results

    “Take the money, use it well, and show us the good job you did so that we will be empowered to make the argument that the money made a difference,” said Scott, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, in a virtual talk at the Council of the Great City Schools’ Legislative/Policy Conference. 

    The focus at the federal level is on reopening schools as quickly as possible. 

    “First, we know that in-person is critical for students’ academic success,” the congressman said. “And let’s be honest, you’re not going to open the economy until we fully reopen our schools.” Bobby Scott

    But decisions around reopening “are not just complex, they’re expensive. We can’t expect schools to implement evidence-based mitigation strategies without giving them the resources to do it,” said Scott. “So, I’m pleased to say that help is on the way.” 

    The relief package signed by President Biden includes $122 billion for elementary/high school education, which Scott described as “the most significant one-time investment in K-12 education from a federal perspective in our nation’s history.”  

    School districts will be able to purchase personal protective supplies, expand transportation services, fix “dangerously outdated ventilation systems” and hire school nurses, among other uses, he said. There also is $7.6 billion for students with disabilities and $10 billion for COVID-19 testing and tracing in schools. 

    Early in his presentation, Scott emphasized the need for educators to administer statewide assessments, despite the challenges. 

    “These assessments are critical for identifying inequities and determining where to strategically target resources to help close achievement gaps. As business leaders tell us, you cannot manage what you do not measure,” he said.

    That is the reasoning for requiring that 20 percent of the funding that schools receive under the American Rescue Plan and 5 percent of funding to the states be used to mitigate what he termed “the severe impact of lost time in the classroom.” 

    He termed the money being distributed this spring as “just a down payment.” The federal government will analyze data from the assessments to ascertain the “full scope of the problem and ensure continued federal investment.” 

    The spending plan, he said, “will also provide a foundation for us to take long-overdue steps towards educational equity for our students.” 

    Barbara Jenkins, superintendent of Florida’s Orange County Public Schools and the Council’s chair-elect asked, whether “some of the oldest and most overcrowded of our schools” would receive priority in an infrastructure package.  

    Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, said Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan would include $100 billion for schools to renovate HVAC, upgrade technology and WiFi accessibility, and more. But the outcome of the legislation is uncertain, given the “dysfunction in the Senate” and the use of the filibuster posing a major obstacle. 

    Fort Worth School board member Ashley Paz raised concerns that “states will try to offset their own state aid to our districts knowing the immense amount of federal funding” being channeled to the districts—as happened with the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding.

    Scott said the 2021 Act includes funds directed to states and local government to cover shortfalls and added responsibilities related to the pandemic, along with other safeguards.

    “But, at some point it becomes political -- you have to make sure that you publicize what they’re doing” if states cut back funding, said Scott. Superintendents should point out “that the federal money is supposed to be an addition” to state funding. 

    Marcelo Cavazos, superintendent of Texas’ Arlington Independent School District, told Scott districts were appreciative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture showing flexibility in terms of food service program rules during the pandemic and asked “how we can work together to ensure that school districts continue to serve healthy, nutritious meals but are provided flexibility in areas such as meal selection.” 

    “Nutrition is going to be a controversial issue,” Scott responded. “There are always those who are not impressed with good nutritious meals. They don’t care and are trying to water down the nutrition standards. … I think we’ve had good success on the flexibility” during the pandemic.

    In closing, Scott pressed school systems to administer annual assessments to students. 

    “We all know that the achievement gap has gotten worse and in some areas, it may have gotten a lot worse,” he said, and assessments will document that slide. “We need to acknowledge how bad it got but then show that the money we provided and the fact that we focused funding according to the Title 1 formula made a difference.”