Ask the Expert: Chad Aldeman
With vaccines recently cleared for elementary-school-aged children and a “great resignation” dominating news cycles, it’s clear the K12 education system is entering yet another phase of pandemic-era learning. What have we learned over the last several months as schools have been deploying federal relief dollars? What should schools be doing to best serve students in the coming months? To answer these questions, we caught up with education finance expert Chad Aldeman from the Georgetown University Edunomics Lab. (Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
How would you describe the relationship between school funding and student outcomes?
Money does matter and it does help boost student outcomes, both in the short-term of student achievement as well as in longer-term things like high school graduation, and college-going success. Those gains are particularly large in the most disadvantaged communities. It’s not perfectly linear, though, and schools and districts that spend the same amount of money can get wildly different outcomes.
What common mistakes have you seen schools make when using ESSER (COVID relief) funds?
The money was meant to help get kids [academically and socio-emotionally] back on track and to advance then accelerate them. If districts use them on sports fields as some districts have, is that what it was intended for? It doesn’t meet my definition.
Another potential mistake is what we in the finance world call a fiscal cliff. This is one-time money, so if districts use the money to hire a bunch of new employees or raise base salaries by a large amount, then, when the money runs out, they’re going to be left with higher salary costs they can no longer afford. Districts may end up having to lay people off or find other revenues, or hoping that their state will give them more.
What should districts and schools be focusing on?
There’s really strong evidence on the effect of tutoring, and the benefits are quite large.
There’s also good research on air quality, like HVAC or HEPA filters. They aren’t just good for addressing coronavirus, but also for students who have allergies, and other air quality issues that can impact student performance.
Another interesting one is high-quality instructional materials. There's lots of research suggesting teachers tend to search Google or Teachers Pay Teachers for things to supplement curriculum, and they don’t always get the best stuff. Districts could use their money now to have a standard, high-quality curriculum across their classrooms.
How has the decline in student enrollment impacted the financial situation of schools, and what do you believe are the best ways for schools to combat enrollment challenges?
In normal years, a district budget is tied to how many students they serve. When enrollment declines, it puts a squeeze on how they spend their money and budgets going forward.
A good use of funds is to right-size budgets by projecting enrollment declines. For instance, if you have fewer 3-year-olds in your community or declining birth rates, you are probably going to have fewer kindergarteners a few years from now. That will affect budgets going forward, so districts need to determine if they have the right number of schools, teachers, and support staff given their expected student enrollments.
What are your opinions on financial incentives for public education to increase outcomes?
The pandemic has changed district appetites for using financial incentives; there are $3,000 or $5,000 incentives for bilingual teachers, special education teachers, and bus drivers because those positions are still open and hard to fill. Research indicates these incentives are more effective in retaining teachers when they’re permanent.
If you had 10 minutes to say anything to the US Education Secretary knowing he would follow your advice, what would you say?
Everything works somewhere, but nothing will work everywhere. Charter schools, instructional materials, accountability — those things can work, but none are going to be a “silver bullet.” We need lots of different innovations and reforms.
Also, we can’t convince people who don’t want to be convinced. If we’re asking people to reform things they don’t want to reform, they’re going to do those reforms badly. The federal government should find things districts actually want to do, and then work with them to do those things.
Whatever is on the horizon for K12 education, it's clear that strong K12 finance management systems are key for supporting administrators to best serve students and teachers. Whether planning how to use future funds, managing complex budgets, or projecting personnel economics, Edstruments is a powerful tool to streamline school administration. How? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a demo and see!