Commentary: Will we step up boldly in how we use CARES Act funds?

By Laurisa Schutt
Posted 7/20/21

This July, as we watch another class transition from high school, we do not know what our kids know. We don’t know if they have relevant skills to get the jobs they seek, whether they have …

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Commentary: Will we step up boldly in how we use CARES Act funds?

Posted

This July, as we watch another class transition from high school, we do not know what our kids know. We don’t know if they have relevant skills to get the jobs they seek, whether they have rigorous knowledge to solve our ever-changing problems or whether they possess the resilience, curiosity and direction to fill their toolbox of independence. We do not measure the tools of what it means to thrive. We do not say loudly, collectively and with conviction, “Enough is enough,” when our system is not working.

We are not alone in our crisis. U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona estimates that approximately 60% of kids haven’t even logged on; the pandemic has exacerbated learning gaps that have long existed. The longer we pretend things will — and should — go back to “normal,” the longer we are lulled into a sense of comfort that normal was OK in the first place. The consequences of unfinished learning include every one of us.

Our school system has just received the majority of $411 million of CARES Act funding. Ten percent is allocated to the state Department of Education and 90% to our 19 districts and 23 charter schools. By comparison, the Race to the Top funding a decade ago was $119 million.

The objective of these new funds is to improve outcomes for kids. Lots of planning is in the works, from tutoring models to new technology and supports.

Will tweaking around the edges of the existing learning-delivery model lead to student breakthroughs? History says no. How we deploy these once-in-a-generation funds is an opportunity to drive a wedge into what learning means and looks like. The answer does not rest in blame or shame. It grows from leadership, commitment, courage.

What if we used some funds for approaches that have shown empirical promise in other states?

Ones where decisions are made at the school level but with the support of the district, where educators had the resources and flexibility to respond in real time to their students and families — where we exchange our one-size-fits-all approach with a nimble cadre that has the time, space, training and mandate to innovate.

This cadre could facilitate services that schools cannot obtain on their own: for example, physical and emotional health therapies, family liaisons, experiential learning, novel structures around the school building and day. These models could engage family and community needs in structures that would look very different from what currently exists.

Combine $411 million with the context of now: schools reopening, rising violence, unfinished learning, racial reckoning and groups like the well-established Redding Consortium for Educational Equity, as well as a second-term Wilmington mayor, Michael Purzycki, and a second-term governor, John Carney. We have the kind of impetus that raises the bar for innovation and lowers the threshold of risk. We have nothing to lose.

Unlike Race to the Top, these new funds arrive with loose borders. They are deposited into bank accounts before any commitment is made to radical student growth and development. Secretary Cardona told us that our Delaware president did his part — now, it is up to us to build the political will to meet the moment with cures, not Band-Aids.

What can you do so your neighborhood thrives? Ask questions about transparency and spending. Show up at your school board meeting. Speak up at your representative district meeting. Talk to your school district superintendent.

What are their plans? What do we most need as a community? What would it take to double our literacy? What would it take to have paid summer internships?

Join our community conversations with education leaders to hear each other’s views:

  • “Advocating for Bold Action with Our Federal ESSER Funds,” with guest speaker Christine Alois, deputy secretary of the Delaware Department of Education, was held July 13 and is available here: fb.watch/v/M09mKQSv.
  • “What is All This Federal Education Funding and How Do We Leverage It for Bold Solutions Now?” with guest speaker Jason Botel, vice president of strategic partnerships at FullBloom, will be held Wednesday from 4-5 p.m. Register at ow.ly/ylEZ50FlVzi.
  • “Boldly Centering Delaware’s Federal ESSER Funds on Your Child,” with guest speaker Maritza Gurdy, northeastern regional delegate for the National Parents Union, will be held July 28 from 6-7 p.m. Register at ow.ly/b7XJ50FnTU2.

Laurisa Schutt is executive director of First State Educate. She serves on the boards of St. Andrew’s School, Leadership Delaware, the Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence and the University of Delaware’s College of Education & Human Development. She also chairs the board of 4th-Dimension Leaders.