State Education Agencies Need to Tell Their Stories Now More than Ever

Over the past few years, federal aid has flowed into state departments of education like never before. Now these agencies are being asked to show their work: The past several months have seen a rising call for increased tracking and documentation of federal aid relief funding among state agencies, especially state departments of education (SEAs).

The requirements for showing where that spending has gone—and what benefits it has brought—haven’t been especially clear. Given the challenging state of the world at the time and the tremendous upheaval in students’ lives, the focus had not been on tracking expenditures but on addressing urgent needs immediately. SEAs face the daunting task of combing back through data (and fill in gaps) to meet the call.

Don’t let history repeat

A series of federal aid relief packages passed by Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic marked an unprecedented $207 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. As part of the first of several packages, Congress set aside approximately $3 billion of the aid allotted to education through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund. In a following package an additional $4 billion was provided to the GEER Fund through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act of 2021.

While these funds are time-limited, many education leaders are hoping to inspire continued funding. They’re thus using these new resources to implement evidence-based initiatives that address pandemic-related learning losses. If all goes well, their data will reflect compelling outcomes that show the value of this short-term funding.

Numerous reports analyzing the aftermath of these new funding streams have urged states not to overlook how important it is to document the allocation and implementation of new education programs that were created during the pandemic. Failure to do so likely means going over the same fiscal cliff SEAs experienced after federal aid provided during the 2008 Great Recession ran out.

This call to action for better data on funding allocation and outcomes has not been without controversy: Some say it would create a burden on schools and others say better data is necessary to ensure funds are being allocated equitably. Either way, we know that the sector was unable to show the impact of 2008 funding, and those funds dried up. This time around, there’s an opportunity to correct that mistake.

First funding, then a retrospective guessing game

Researchers recently called the lack of transparency on how entities are using funds a “policy failure.” It was a mistake, they argue, to distribute those funds without providing guidelines for what should be reported—and how.

Efforts after the fact can’t undo the confusion at the outset, and gathering data SEAs never knew they should have collected is likely impossible at this late stage. Throw in the immediate concerns schools were struggling to address when the funding was released, and the challenge of not just measuring effectiveness but having the foresight (and good luck) to measure the data points they’d later be asked to provide becomes an even heavier lift.

For some agencies, the right data exists, and demonstrating outcomes becomes a matter of mapping the data on hand. Most aren’t that lucky and in many cases even those that use manual processes that make tracking cumbersome.

Even though the U.S. Department of Education (US DOE) did require plans for how the third round of COVID relief funds would be used, states and districts were left to their own devices for how best to provide public transparency into the expenditures and returns.

In recent months, the US DOE Office of Inspector General has conducted several audits to understand how states have spent and tracked federal aid. These initial audits, likely the first of many, found some SEAs lacked a plan for how to monitor funding allocations, the processes for allocation, and assurance that expenses aligned with the purpose of the aid packages.

The SEAs at the center of the audits acknowledged these gaps and pointed to the burden of the tasks associated with processing record levels of funding in the midst of a public health crisis.

How Indiana is telling its story

As the first of several rounds of funding was being distributed to state and local education agencies, Indiana leapt into action. Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) engaged Resultant to establish a Project Outcomes Management Office (POMO).

Our POMO structure delivers complex projects by helping organizations establish and communicate value-based metrics, realistic time horizons, and well-defined levels of effort to drive real change, lasting efficiencies, and progress. This level of strategy, planning, and communication enables agencies to respond to funding opportunities with speed, agility, and objectivity.

The initial POMO engagement helped the IDOE understand and validate evidence-based solutions on behalf of Indiana’s students, families, and educators through a well-documented and disciplined process. As a result, Indiana is at the top of the class when it comes to transparency in allocation and expenditure.

Indiana built a public spending dashboard to address fiscal transparency on SEA and LEA federal aid relief funding. Any interested party can now search for any school corporation in the state to see what funds have been allocated and how much has been reimbursed at any point in time. The dashboard tracks ESSER funds and funds awarded from the federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) grants.

Putting the numbers in front of stakeholders will enable conversations that help inform school corporations’ decisions about those funds. As it meets this once-in-a-generation opportunity, IDOE hopes to encourage idea-sharing that will create even greater opportunities for all students. Resultant had the opportunity to carry this solution to another state through a partnership with the Vermont Agency of Education (AOE).

How to get started

What came into being as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for schools now presents a burden—and an opportunity. Telling the story of that funding is critical.

So where to start?

Audit the data at your disposal. Figure out what’s on hand—and where the gaps lie—so you know where to go next.

Map out how you’ll change your data-collection cycle to collect the missing data your gap analysis identified. A big part of that may be improving interoperability so you can access existing data from other entities.

Determine what you’re going to need down the road: Which projects are in flight, and what’s coming next? Talk through ways to assign and measure outcomes to each and how you’ll compare historical data to get insight into those outcomes.

Look ahead, and then look further ahead. Take this opportunity to move past compliance and work toward continuous improvement. When you understand your current data landscape better, you can start setting your sights on where you’d like it to go.

SEAs need to show not only how the relief money was spent but how it moved the needle. That challenge is a big one but also a foundation for how SEAs tell their stories in the future. Improving data collection and analysis is essential for ensuring we don’t repeat the mistakes of the Great Recession in our all-too-recent past. It may also be the surest route to creating greater opportunities in education.

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