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In education, one of the more bizarre debates of the past quarter century has been over whether more money improves students’ outcomes. It’s tough to think of anywhere else in American life where we’d even have that discussion. Yet a remarkable amount of attention has been devoted to the notion that it doesn’t, as well as to the equally dubious idea that more money is the answer to all our educational ills.

Few school-spending skeptics argue that money can’t help; rather, they fear that funds will be spent on things that they deem unlikely to make a difference for students. And responsible champions of more spending concede that of course it matters how those funds are spent. In other words, nearly everyone agrees that spending is never just about “how much,” but also a matter of “how.” Yet there’s still a surprising lack of attention devoted to strategies for spending funds wisely and effectively. Our new book, “Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck,” and this essay are meant to help with that.

The pandemic has, among many other things, tightened budgets, shifted learning online and to unfamiliar technologies and disrupted staffing models by upending enrollment and attendance patterns, causing teachers to opt out of various roles and forcing schools to experiment with hybrid and remote instruction.

Tight budgets may be unwelcome, but they can present leaders with opportunities that don’t exist during more fiscally flush times. As Karen Hawley Miles, president of Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit that partners with school systems to help them transform how they organize resources, explains in our book: “Budget pressure always generates a call to reduce district office spending because it doesn’t immediately impact the classroom. This often leads to such stopgap measures as freezing hiring, drawing down reserves or deferring maintenance.”

But these are short-term patches. A better strategy, she says, is to use the unfortunate situation to “re-envision the district office role and focus district-level spending on a few powerful improvement strategies.” She urges district leaders to ask: “Where can the district find efficiencies?” “Are there opportunities to lower costs … without compromising quality?”  “What resources and decisions might [they] devolve from central to school level to foster stewardship and better match spending to school-specific needs?”

Related: When schools reopen, we may not have enough teachers

One such opportunity today emerges with regard to staffing. State laws and directives are littered with rules, regulations and routines that make this challenging for schools and districts. Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel, the co-presidents of Public Impact, an education policy organization that focuses partly on funding, note in our book that line-item budgets limit the reallocation of funds; that rigid class-size limits make it difficult for teams of teachers and paraprofessionals to collectively serve a group of students; and that certification requirements can inhibit cross-functional teams. As the Hassels explain, too many existing policies serve to “lock in one-teacher, one-classroom structures,” instead of opening up staffing approaches that are more cost-effective and more instructionally effective. The challenges of this year, with shrunken class sizes, a mixture of in-person and remote groups, and redefined teachers’ roles, make this the right time to explore these kinds of changes.

“Tight budgets may be unwelcome, but they can present leaders with opportunities that don’t exist during more fiscally flush times.”

American schools have a long-running, unrequited love affair with education technology. Outlandish claims have been made that this next advance — from ballpoint pens to blackboards, from radios to desktop computers — will change everything, though it invariably doesn’t. And the dismal results of remote learning circa 2020 only reinforce how far ed tech is from delivering on these grand promises.

In our book, Scott Milam, Carrie Stewart and Katie Morrison-Reed of Afton Partners, a consulting firm that has helped schools develop long-term financial plans centered around a technology-based model, observe that while technology can make a big difference for learners, the crucial determinant is how it’s actually used. They write: “The smart incorporation of technology indeed will allow for increased ‘bang for the educational buck.’ But when incorporated poorly, technology can distract, detract and waste a lot of money.” They note that the districts that have the best experiences with technology start by asking, “What are the goals and objectives for technology-enabled classrooms?” They focus intently on how to gauge progress and measure success. The most important question should never be, “How much technology does a school or system have?” Instead, it must be, “What’s being done with it?”

Although no one could have foreseen last winter the financial crunch that so many schools face right now, these new challenges can also provide leaders with the rationale to make smart, needed and overdue decisions when it comes to school spending. However much money schools get, leaders have the opportunity to make the dollars go further by finding ways to get more bang for the education buck.

Frederick M. Hess and Brandon L. Wright are co-editors of the new Teachers College Press book “Getting More Bang for the Education Buck.” The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.

This article about school spending was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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