How Districts Will Pare Out Nonessential Products, Post-Stimulus

Staff Writer

When K-12 districts first began receiving their share of billions of dollars in emergency aid stimulus funding, their priorities were to address immediate needs that were brought on by the pandemic.  

Schools used funds for a broad array of needs, from academic recovery to supporting students’ mental health to purchasing devices and ensuring that students had access to the internet and to digital platforms.

Roughly $190 billion in emergency aid has been allocated to schools so far. But with the federal funding cliff due to arrive at the end of September 2024 — the point at which districts will be forced to commit their share of money — how are school systems deciding which products to keep, and which to cut? 

Three district administrators directly involved in those decisions took education companies inside on how they’re approaching that turning point at the annual EdWeek Market Brief Summit, held last week in Phoenix. 

They spoke about which products their school systems have funded with stimulus aid, how they’re responding to the loss of emergency funding, which projects funded with that aid that they consider top priorities, and what vendors can do to avoid being shown the door. 

“We’re looking at [products] that maybe we haven’t looked at before because we have this opportunity to impact schools,” said Bernard McCune, executive director of athletics, activities, and extended academic learning for Denver Public Schools. “We have the responsibility and the obligation, every year, to prioritize what is most impactful for our students.”

Sustainability Is Key 

Districts understood from the start that funds were temporary. Yet some, like the Aldine Independent School District in Texas, tried to choose resources that they believed would show value beyond the length of the stimulus. 

“We wanted to make sure that whatever it was we were doing, we could continue it after the funding was no longer available so we can be good stewards of taxpayer money,” said Faviola Cantú, chief academic officer of the 63,000-student district, during the panel. 

Her district zeroed in on returns from the beginning, she said. As they evaluated products, both old and new, and compared data, return on investment was top of mind. If evidence of academic gains or other results were not there, the project wouldn’t be sustained. 

The more aligned you are with our strategic priorities, the more likely that we are going to be able to continue that work with you. We’re looking at products that are tied to our values.Faviola CantúChief academic officer, Aldine Independent School District

For the Washoe County Schools, a district with more than 65,000 students in Nevada, sustainability was also a top factor. The district was also careful to focus on the programs that were successful based on data, rather than overwhelming schools with a flood of programs that didn’t necessarily reap benefits for student outcomes. 

“Post-stimulus, moving forward, we’re continuing to narrow that focus down so it’s not as broad with a bunch of different programs,” said Don Angotti, associate chief for the office of teaching, learning and leadership for the district. The goal is “to be able to focus on the ones that schools truly need that would benefit [students].” 

Federal officials have recently taken steps to give school districts more flexibility to spend money beyond the original deadlines. 

A top U.S. Department of Education official said in a speech this month to school district finance officials that districts should be prepared to ask their states for more time to spend their remaining stimulus dollars. While districts must obligate, or commit, the final round of stimulus funding by the end of September 2024, the agency said this fall that states would be allowed to apply on behalf of districts to allow stimulus funds to be spent beyond the January 2025 deadline for liquidating those funds, Education Week reported. 

SEL and Devices Top of Mind

Social-emotional needs will continue to be a priority for districts because so many challenges with student well-being that arose during the pandemic have yet to be resolved, Cantú said. When it comes to sustaining these types of programs, districts want to work with providers who can embed their content into existing curricular resources, she said.  

Those programs will be judged by metrics such as teacher observations and surveys of educators, students, and parents, she said. 

Angotti said Washoe County will use remaining stimulus money for school professionals, such as mental health experts, and increased counseling services.  

Be able to articulate the impact that your product or service has had.Bernard McCuneExecutive Director of Athletics, Activities, and Extended Academic Learning, Denver Public Schools

“We’re going through classrooms and watching students and how they’re engaging in content, so we can identify some of those students that might need additional support,” he said. 

The district officials on the panel said their school systems were at different places in their adoption of 1-to-1 device programs. But all of them said they want to make sure those investments are sustained, post-stimulus. 

The Denver Public Schools, with more than 90,000 students, plans to make more investments related to technology to try to ensure that devices are maintained and continuously updated, with the money to do that, post-stimulus, coming from sources like general funds or bond measures. 

“The pandemic changed not only the way we teach, but how students learn,” said McCune, of the Colorado district. “So with the devices, and how we use technology — that’s not going away.” 

Staying Off the Chopping Block 

Over the next year, education companies hoping that their products and services will be kept in use after the federal aid expires will need to show their value, as measured by improved student outcomes, and that they understand district goals, the panelists said. 

“The more aligned you are with our strategic priorities, the more likely that we are going to be able to continue that work with you,” Cantú said. “We’re looking at products that are tied to our values.” 

Her district is looking to answer questions such as, “Are we able to build strong relationships with our students, and then align [what we do] to their unique learning needs?” she said. 

Vendors should “know the districts and know their strategic plans,” added McCune, from Colorado. 

“Be able to articulate the impact that your product or service has had,” he said. “Stimulus funding is just one type of resource — but the needs of our community and our students are still there. So great partnerships with companies to meet those needs will always [need to] be there too.” 

Follow EdWeek Market Brief on Twitter @EdMarketBrief or connect with us on LinkedIn.

Photo from the EdWeek Market Brief Summit of, left to right, Faviola Cantu, Don Angotti, and Bernard McCune by Kaylee Domzalski/Education Week

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