With pandemic stimulus funds sunsetting, Penn GSE expert offers investment ideas

June 4, 2024
Brooks Bowden gesturing in front of a chalkboard with an equation.

Brooks Bowden (Lora Reehling for Penn GSE)

With federal stimulus funds provided for public schools set to expire in September, many school districts face a pressing challenge: use the money or lose it. Penn GSE Associate Professor A. Brooks Bowden says districts with remaining funds should prioritize spending projects with long-term benefits, including facilities, data analytics, student support, and professional development.

“This is an opportunity to invest in infrastructure and support services, such as new water fountains and improved kitchens, or books for libraries and classrooms. Those are investments that will last,” said Bowden, director of the Center for Benefit–Cost Studies of Education.

But the clock is ticking. Districts have until the end of September to spend or commit their remaining pandemic relief funds. U.S. schools have an estimated $90 billion in unspent federal stimulus money and, as of last fall, about one-third still needed to be committed, according to a report from consulting firm McKinsey.

In its survey of nearly 500 K–12 schools, McKinsey reported that more than half of schools planned to invest in support for students’ learning needs and well-being. Many students struggled with remote learning and restrictions during the pandemic, and some have not regained their academic footing.

To support students and educators, Bowden suggests funding for professional development for educators and mental health and academic programs for students.

“As effective programs are brought in and provide support, as funding goes away, hopefully, the kids served are better off,” she said.

Using the remaining funds to hire more staff might be tempting, but Bowden urges caution. She notes that schools might have to lay off staff when the money runs out.

Instead, Bowden advises districts to make forward-looking investments with long-term benefits. For example, dated school buildings are deteriorating in many communities, and pandemic funds could cover much-needed repairs and improvements. She also proposes that districts build data analytics systems to create evidence-based results.

“That would help district leaders better understand how to spend their money and use your data to the best ability,” Bowden said.

Bowden is deploying data in her evidence-based research. She analyzes data with North Carolina policymakers and identifies the best investment outcomes. The studies identify gaps in services for students with exceptional levels of vulnerability or students who would benefit from additional investment, and data helps inform the decisions.

Bowden says evidence-based research can help districts make better budgetary decisions. For instance, she notes that schools sometimes have surplus dollars at the end of a school year. If districts used a data-informed process to allocate money, administrators would direct cash to the areas of greatest need and reduce waste, Bowden said.

“The more policymakers can see children’s educational outcomes and the effectiveness of educational investment, the better,” she said.

Bowden and several Penn GSE students, including three Ph.D. candidates, a post-doc, and an undergrad, are analyzing data on young children from North Carolina for a pilot program to project the services and supports a cohort will need as they progress through early elementary school.

The Cross-Sector Early Sector Longitudinal Data Project uses data from several state agencies and organizations that support young children, such as food and nutrition services, public pre-K programs, and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, and layers it with a kindergarten-aged student cohort. Researchers want to compare how many students accessed aid and what aid they used and then use that information to project the group’s future needs.

Bowden explains that such information could guide decisions on programs, staff, tutoring services, or technology to meet the students’ needs. If districts have remaining pandemic aid, she says they could invest in similar data analytics capabilities.

“It is important to think about kids holistically and use all the data we can to invest in our children,” Bowden concluded.