Having too much money to know what to do with might sound like a good problem to have. But in the case of the historic amount of education funding coming to Colorado, it’s an opportunity we can’t afford to waste.
In March, President Joe Biden signed a massive COVID-19 stimulus plan that provides billions of dollars to K-12 schools. Many school leaders, who are often accustomed to operating on a shoestring budget, are now tasked with the immense responsibility of determining how to spend nearly $130 billion to address the pandemic’s impact on learning.
Initial reports show that many districts plan to spend the money on summer school, tutoring programs, and short-term hiring. While each of these tactics to accelerate learning post-pandemic may have merit in the short term, this extraordinary investment is an opportunity to think bigger about how we can deliver, and sustain, high quality education that prepares students for lifelong success.
As business leaders, outcomes from educational investment impact us directly, from the strength of our talent pipeline to the flourishing of our economy. We’re passionate about supporting educators to achieve outcomes for students — it’s good for business and good for Colorado.
Drawing from the ups and downs we’ve experienced in our lines of work, three recommendations come to mind that we’d like to elevate in support of our education partners as they make these allocation decisions.
First, it’s critical to listen to teachers, students, families, business, and partners to inform your plans. Not only is it a requirement of the stimulus funding to involve stakeholders throughout the process, it’s good practice.
With stakeholder guidance, it’s all the more possible to identify what’s working in our current system, what’s not, and opportunities for improvement that can be sustained long-term. Students know what kinds of educational experiences are most engaging and relevant to them, families understand the barriers they face in supporting their kids’ learning, and business knows what skills and competencies are required to succeed in their fields, among many other invaluable insights that can be gained from those who navigate and support our schools.
Second, examine your current education system and areas for improvement. One critical area to pay attention to is human capital. Every business leader knows that people are a company’s most important asset, and schools are no different. A district’s ability to impact current and future generations is dependent on its ability to reinforce the teacher pipeline and retain quality teachers.
Short-term solutions to address talent gaps, such as short-term hires, only produce short-term results. By thinking more strategically about ways to address human capital, today’s stimulus dollars can yield long-term transformational impact. For example, schools and districts seeking to solve the teacher shortage problem can turbocharge their talent pool by investing in high-quality teacher preparation.
Another area with far-reaching potential is data infrastructure. Currently, schools do not have the systems and technology in place to get a full picture of how students are doing and adequately connect resources and opportunities to the kids that need it most.
With COVID-19, we saw pre-existing inequities in our education system amplified. With this historic funding, we finally have the resources to build the structures necessary to deliver targeted solutions. In addition, data will be critical in tracking the money spent on priorities and their results, setting us up to make better policy and funding decisions going forward.
Third, rather than spreading the money on many small projects that are difficult to manage, we recommend identifying one or two big bets and doing them really well. Through stakeholder engagement and the results of previous efforts — like earlier stimulus allocations and Colorado’s Relevant Information to Strengthen Education (RISE) grants — it’s possible to gain the insight needed to prioritize promising solutions.
In addition, take time to identify a collective vision for what you’d like to achieve, the measurable outcomes that signify success, as well as the leadership and development that’s required to get there. To make sure all of these pieces stay on track, one idea is to hire dedicated leadership staff to oversee the stimulus strategy, planning, and results-gathering.
Schools and districts have until September 2024 to spend the funds, which should allow for more time to pause and plan. We urge education leaders to ask themselves the same question students are regularly asked: Where do you see yourself in five years?
By taking the time to gain insight from stakeholders, to identify areas for improvement in the education system, and to place big bets on solutions with a laser focus, we can leverage this historic stimulus funding to come back stronger from the disruption of the pandemic.
Tiffany Bray is vice president of innovation and care design for DaVita and serves as a board member for the Public Education and Business Coalition. Joe Kuntner is managing director for the public sector at Slalom, a consulting firm, and is a board member at Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit business coalition focused on education.
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