When Congress passed the CARES Act to respond to COVID-19, it tucked into the legislation $3 billion for governors to use on education as they see fit. This money is a rare opportunity for governors to do something big, bold, and lasting.
There will be no end to ways to spend the money: Education is expensive, and there will be plenty of claims on the money. Teacher pensions are depleted. School workers — bus drivers, support staff, administrators — all will want CARES funds to fill gaps in their budgets. Then there are public colleges that have lost out on tuition dollars.
Trying to spread the money among all these causes would mean not accomplishing much on any of them. There is other federal-support money to fill the gaps. But with this pot of money, it is far better to try to make a lasting impact on one big initiative.
Governors should entertain what I call “long runway” ideas — areas where the investment will pay off over a long period of time. Think about what has the best payoff: patching a lot of potholes, or rebuilding a major bridge? It’s true, the potholes need filling right now, but the bridge will be there in 50 years. That’s an investment worth making.
Here are four long-runway ideas that governors should consider tackling in their states with these fresh education dollars:
Digital Learning. The future of learning is clear: It’s going to occur inside and outside traditional-classroom settings. But we see that many schools have struggled to teach students virtually. That’s no longer acceptable. Existing philanthropic efforts need to be leveraged, as we send a call to arms to those who know we can do better. Fortunately, there is massive private support for the goal of eliminating the digital divide. Governors could provide the jumpstart to a strategy that ensures every student can access learning digitally and from home.
With COVID-19 still impacting our nation, students urgently need basic laptops or tablets to continue learning. They need broadband access to the Internet. In addition to providing these resources, CARES funds could be invested in statewide virtual schools, which can be a perfect solution for students who need more than their current schools offer. A long-run benefit of eliminating the digital divide is that teachers will be empowered with tools to help them personalize instruction and transform their classroom models, even after we return to “normal.”
Workforce Preparedness. States offer many workforce-education programs in their schools and community colleges. The problem is that far too few of these programs prepare students for high-skill and high-wage careers in industries such as advanced manufacturing, health care, logistics, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity. In these industries even before the pandemic, the demand for labor outstripped the supply. Now, even more so.
Governors can change this by investing in programs to develop cross-sector partnerships and innovative career pathways. Here’s just one example: Florida’s share of the funds, $173.6 million, could be carved into 430 five-year grants of $400,000 each. Each grant would be large enough to fund a nursing-school faculty member for five years. Each of these 400-plus faculty could train 20 more nurses a year, thereby creating a fresh infusion of almost 8,600 nurses for the state each year and boosting the state’s nursing staff by 5 percent in just the first year. Elsewhere, Ohio could take its $104.9 million and carve it into 100 separate grants for advanced manufacturing-training programs — enough to produce an additional 7,500 advanced manufacturing workers a year and help the state respond to the retirement of older skilled workers.
Closing Achievement Gaps. There is no problem in education quite as challenging as the achievement gap. It’s closely linked with socioeconomic inequality, which sometimes seems impossible to overcome. But with enough investment in programs that do work, we could achieve great things. Right now, one-third of fourth-graders can’t read at grade level — that failure is a proven predictor of failing to graduate high school. However, reading coaches trained in the science of reading can help teachers become even better at teaching their students to read. Two states that have adopted reading coach programs as a centerpiece in their efforts to address the achievement gap are Florida and Mississippi. Both states have seen meaningful gains in their statewide reading scores. We know that reading is critical to students’ future ability to graduate high school — why not invest more in a proven solution?
Stabilizing Private Schools. Finally, governors could help to stabilize private schools, which are responsible for roughly 10 percent of America’s K–12 students. Private schools, especially faith-based schools, often operate on shoestring budgets, yet in many cases their students are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. With the impacts of COVID-19, many of these schools are at a breaking point. Families may have less money to pay tuition, and financial aid will be stretched thin. It’s worth a reminder that these schools are part of our education system. They employ teachers, buy textbooks, and educate students who would otherwise fill desks in public schools. They provide alternatives to parents whose needs aren’t being met by the public schools. Helping cash-strapped parents who were paying out of their own pockets to send their child to a great school seems like a simple way to invest in education — and it would keep a vital and successful part of our education system going well into the future.
These four ideas have one common feature: They are all transformational. Rather than patching a one-year hole in the budget, funding these big ideas would create something new, something bold, and something lasting for our nation’s students, wherever and however they learn, long after this pandemic has passed.