How to spend public money on education (Opinion)

Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, and I recently launched a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations about Schooling) in which we delve into our disagreements and identify common ground on some of education’s thorniest issues. I thought readers might enjoy reading snippets of those conversations from time to time. Today, as the pandemic recedes, schools are tasked with spending much of the COVID relief aid still in their coffers, with observers asking how well these funds were spent, Pedro and I reflect on how spend money on education more effectively.


Haystack: Given all the COVID aid we have seen Washington pour into schools over the past two years, a figure that exceeds $200 billion, I have significant concerns about whether these dollars are being spent wisely or appropriately. Where are you on that question?

Pedro: I think we both share a certain skepticism about how public money is spent, and I think that’s healthy. I think it’s important, especially at the local and state level, for people to be vigilant. We all know that there are so many examples of wasting, of overspending, of wasting. At the same time, education is a labor-intensive field that requires us to invest in people if we want to achieve better results. We just have to make sure that we are making the wise investments in my opinion.

Haystack: I am with you there. We need to rethink how dollars are spent in schools. Eighty percent of the money in schools is spent on people: salaries, benefits, all of that. If there was something that said, “Look, we’ve got a pension challenge that’s sucking up a lot of dollars; We don’t want to just invest money and then have it trickle out of the bucket and into retiree benefits.” So part of the solution, to me, is that if we’re going to put in dollars, it has to be part of a longer-term solution in the system. I imagine spending $100 billion to $200 billion and saying, “Okay, I’m not crazy about this, but I get what we’re buying in the long run.”

Pedro: Yes, and I think this is where if there was more bipartisanship, I think there would be good controls on the use of the funds. I agree that the pension problem is huge, and it’s not just the school systems; we have police departments, we have the entire public sector in trouble with this pension system. I don’t know what the long-term solution is, but we need it, because we are still going to need a public sector. But I do think that other branches of government really need to be vigilant about the ways money is being spent. The fear I have is that if the federal money districts receive is wasted or spent on things that clearly don’t benefit children, people may say, “Districts can’t be trusted to spend public money wisely.” And we shouldn’t let that happen.” happen again.”

Haystack: And then I think we need to think about where exactly the money is being spent. If we have kids who are massively alienated from school, I don’t think just putting them in classrooms for five hours a day this summer is a promising solution. And yet I am concerned that many of the efforts to combat learning loss amount to doing more than we are accustomed to doing.

Pedro: I disagree. In the meantime, one of the areas that I think would be a good investment is mentoring. There are many children who need the direct human contact of a mentor, and a teacher with 25 to 30 children will not be able to address it for children who are far behind. So tutors, well-trained tutors who can work in small groups with children, I think that would be a good investment. But I think there are other ways that the money could be well spent, that could have a positive impact.

Haystack: It seems that for those of us on the right and left, who really believe in putting money into education, there should be a win-win situation here. There seems to be a natural shared interest, on both the left and the right, in getting good reporting on how dollars are actually used.

Pedro: There has to be guidance, guidance and accountability from states when it comes to spending. They can’t just say it’s up to the districts. We have an experience here in California with what they call the local control funding formula. It’s an equity-based funding plan and districts get money; if you have more children with high needs, you get more money. And what we’ve seen from the research is that some districts are very clear on how to use it, and many are not. And sometimes, it is spent in a very questionable way. So you know I’m all for local control, but it has to come with guidance and it has to come with responsibility.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast.