How should Texas schools spend $18 billion in stimulus money? Education leaders have ideas.

Alief ISD's Best Elementary School math interventionist teacher Mayra Medina reviews with her second grade students how to apply math to purchasing items by counting coins, Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Alief.

Best Elementary School math interventionist Mayra Medina reviews concepts involving counting coins while purchasing items during a class Thursday, April 8, 2021, at the Alief ISD campus. Alief Superintendent HD Chambers said he wants to spend “the vast majority” of federal stimulus money allocated to his district on staff-related costs, allowing his district to expand math interventions.

Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

As students filled classrooms Thursday morning at Best Elementary School, four second-graders gathered in a tucked-away corner of the Alief ISD campus, using plastic coins to learn how to count money.

The specialized, small-group instruction is an important tool for catching up students struggling academically — a group whose numbers are growing amid the pandemic. Alief officials hope to tap some of the billions of dollars in federal stimulus money in the next few years to hire additional staff that would allow them to give students more one-on-one attention.

“The need for this type of intervention has been magnified because of the academic losses we’re going to have here,” said Best Elementary Principal Renee Canales, who estimated about 30 percent of her students remain in online-only classes.

As state legislators haggle over how to spend roughly $18 billion in stimulus funds allocated to Texas schools, education and nonprofit leaders are starting to identify ways they want to spend the money with the end of the COVID-19 pandemic potentially insight.

Precise needs will vary by the school district, but several top education officials have identified similar spending priorities in interviews and public statements. They include hiring new staff, extending the school day and year, adding tutoring services, and addressing students’ psychological needs.

Texas public school leaders still have no clue how much federal stimulus money they will get, when the funds will start flowing, or what strings will be attached to the cash. Nonetheless, the tight deadline for spending billions — either late 2023 or 2024 — combined with the expected onslaught of hiring and buying make early planning important, education administrators said.

Federal lawmakers have passed three stimulus packages containing nearly $20 billion for Texas public and private schools, equal to roughly one-third of annual spending on all public school operating costs in the state. Districts serving higher percentages of lower-income students — such as Houston, Alief, Aldine and Pasadena ISDs — will receive a bigger chunk of the money.

State leaders delivered the first batch of funds, totaling roughly $1 billion, to schools in mid-2020, but they withheld a similar amount of state funds to fill other education budget holes. Texas legislators are expected to take a similar approach with at least part of the remaining $18 billion. They also could dictate how some of the money must be spent, to the frustration of many educators.

“We have what we want to do, but it’s all going to be based on how the state releases those dollars to school districts,” said Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, whose district is in line to receive more than $1 billion.

For many school leaders, the money meets the need. District officials have reported higher class failure rates, enrollment declines in lower grades and heightened mental health issues, among other concerns. Preliminary standardized test scores also suggest significant losses in math achievement, with smaller slippage in reading.

First, they generally acknowledge the need for more teachers, support staff and outside helpers, such as tutors. The extra bodies will help cut down on class sizes, increase opportunities for small-group instruction, give teachers more planning time and reduce caseloads for employees tackling students’ non-academic needs.

Alief ISD Superintendent HD Chambers said he would want to use “the vast majority” of stimulus money to add employees. Chambers said some of those would be retained long-term, ultimately filling positions held by employees who retire between now and 2024, while others would stay for a short, predetermined amount of time.

“The most important component of our plans is identifying children and their needs, then using district resources to shrink the number of students that adults are responsible for,” Chambers said. “With a lot of our students, particularly our English Language Learners, even five or six students with one adult can be a bit much.”

Another top priority: giving students more time with school staff. Several of the state’s largest districts have added or proposed adding optional days to the 2021-22 school year, including Houston and Dallas ISDs. Other districts may tack on minutes to the bell schedule or add days in 2022-23, when the funding and public health outlook becomes clearer.

“I think the issue of time is going to be part of the long-term solution for us,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told lawmakers last month.

Some districts also could tap the federal funds to offer retention bonuses, aiming to reward staff and stave off retirements and resignations after an exhausting year. While fears about massive employee losses amid the pandemic have not come to fruition, some administrators worry about losing top staff members in the coming months and years.

“I think retention stipends would mean a lot to our staff, and I think it would have a true impact on our students,” Pasadena ISD Superintendent DeeAnn Powell said. “The longer we can keep (employees) engaged in the classroom and firing on all cylinders, that’s what we need.”

Education leaders have floated numerous other methods for spending stimulus money: buying more technology, purchasing new learning programs, reimbursing more COVID-related costs from the past 13 months, and upgrading heating, cooling, and ventilation systems, among others.

A tough test
Each idea carries some risks, raising fears about whether the money will be well-spent.

A sudden influx of cash will require fast, drastic changes in public school districts, which are not renowned for their nimbleness. Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education at Brown University who has proposed multibillion-dollar investments in tutoring, said he expects to see mixed results.

“I’m optimistic that there will be some bright examples of successes, but whether those are able to be replicated is, frankly, not something there’s a lot of history or evidence of in education reform in this country,” Kraft said.

Already, some educators are sounding alarms about a potential labor shortage complicating efforts to scale up. They fear the demand for retired teachers, tutoring providers and part-time job seekers will outpace the supply.

Anne McClellan, who oversees the University of Houston’s Cougar Tutors initiative, said most of the region’s largest districts already have contacted her about availability. About 100 undergraduates and graduate students perform part-time tutoring at Houston ISD campuses through the program. McClellan said she hopes to add another 200 to 300 tutors soon.

“We know how to do teaching and leading, we have expertise in that,” McClellan said. “During this time, we’re just really making sure we’ve built our infrastructure and documented everything so we could scale fast.”

The push to extend the school year also could face resistance from burned-out teachers and reluctant parents.

When Dallas ISD gave staff and families at nearly 100 schools the option to add days to the 2021-22 calendar, about 60 campus communities shot down the idea.

In addition, the prospect of using stimulus money on staff bonuses could stoke political hand-wringing, particularly among state lawmakers who prefer tying increased pay to employee performance metrics.

While money and policy battles loom, the stimulus’ potential for major impact carries excitement. Sangeetha Ranadeeve, who serves with Cougar Tutors at Houston ISD’s Sterling High School, said adding more adults to classrooms will prove vital for students.

“You see kids who feel like they’ve been bashing their head against the wall, and the moment they understand something and make progress, it’s like joy comes over them,” said Ranadeeve, a senior at the University of Houston. “I absolutely think this kind of work will make a difference.”


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