As Congress seems poised to send K-12 schools another $130 billion in American Rescue Plan aid—in addition to the $60-odd billion in COVID relief it delivered in 2020—there’s a lot of talk about how much is being spent. Meanwhile, there’s been too little attention given to how effectively those funds are being used. As schools look to spend enormous sums on things like remote learning, education technology, COVID testing, personal protective equipment, and remediation, it’s time for a second look at how, when, and why schools buy what they do.
The question of how, when, and why schools buy stuff usually travels under the yawn-inducing label of “K-12 procurement” and gets about as much attention as you’d expect. But this inattention has created huge problems, meaning that huge sums get wasted, educators get frustrated, and schools have trouble getting their hands on goods and services that actually help. Even as school districts spend more than $8 billion each year on education technology, tech companies estimate that two-thirds of educational software licenses go unused. Educators wind up relying on what they can assemble from Pinterest on a Sunday night. Similarly, attorneys Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric relate that school districts in one unnamed state annually spent federal Title I funds on a reading program with dismal results just because it was “recommended by the state’s Title I office and had never been flagged in an audit.”
Why does this happen? And how can we do better? In my new volume, a number of contributors who live in the world of education procurement have explored why schools and school systems purchase so much stuff they don’t use or that doesn’t work. Here, I’ll flag three takeaways that can help address the disconnect.
School officials need to be clear as to how a new purchase actually helps teachers do their job. An eternal complaint among educators is that districts waste money on ineffective programs and resources that they don’t want or need. Thomas Arnett, a one-time middle school math teacher and now a researcher at the Christensen Institute, explains that teachers view district-level procurement as being more about creating new things to do than helping teachers accomplish tasks they’re already tackling. If it’s not clear to teachers how a new purchase or program is going to help them do their job, they’ll (quite reasonably) stick with what they know. Decisions about outlays will be more likely to yield useful purchases if they start with a clear understanding of what teachers say they need to do their job.
Compliance concerns shouldn’t drive spending decisions. Increased federal funds could make a big difference for students, but experience teaches that they rarely do. In practice, concerns about spending restrictions, reporting requirements, and federal timelines mean that these dollars can wind up underwriting fragmented services, ineffective but familiar programs, or faddish offerings that have been embraced by those in Washington. As Junge and Krvaric explain, the complexity of federal funding rules—and the risk-aversion of education officials—often lead to a reliance on programs that feel “safe,” including fragmented offerings that readily match federal guidelines, familiar programs that don’t get audited, or new offerings that enjoy a clear wink-wink endorsement. Federal officials could help by simplifying spending rules; in the meantime, district officials need to more aggressively explore what’s allowed and resist the temptation to stick with what’s “safe” over what’s successful.
Education officials need to engage with vendors. School systems are constantly inundated with vendor pitches. But experiences with vendors overpromising and under-delivering leave many school officials leery and inclined to keep them at arms-length. The ironic result, as former district HR administrator turned ed-tech CEO Lauren Dachille observes, is that when it comes time to buy new textbooks, assessments, information management, or pretty much anything else, those making the purchase are frequently only familiar with what’s on offer from the vendors with the biggest and pushiest sales teams. One consequence is that a given “request for proposals” (RFP) tends to include specific requirements that reflect the “features” list of well-known products, unintentionally excluding less familiar, more customizable, cheaper, and (frequently more user-friendly) products of smaller or newer vendors. Rather than view vendors as an inconvenient blight, district officials should regard them as a resource and as potential partners.
By the time the American Rescue Plan is enacted, Uncle Sam will have delivered an extra $200 billion into schools over the past twelve months. These funds are intended to help schools provide remote learning, make schools safe, and help students catch up. All of these require substantial outlays on technology, supplies, and hardware. As school officials make these purchases, they have an obligation to ensure that they’ll actually be used and won’t languish on the shelf, like too many textbooks and technologies from days past.