During spring break this year, I got a chance to travel to D.C. to meet with my House representative, Rick Crawford. The staffer who interviewed me was attentive and took notes, and we made small talk about his own family of teachers. I appreciated his attention, but when I was done with my spiel, his first question was: “How is your school spending the COVID money? Are they spending it well?”
I got nervous – not because my school is spending their money poorly, but because I know that the money schools received because of COVID represents the single largest financial investment in education in history – and if we can’t prove we spent it well, we won’t get anything like it again. Theoretically, we could get even less than we had before.
That’s how I know we have to tell our policymakers about the ways our schools are spending the money, and specifically, how it’s helping our kids get back on the right track. So, I told him about the new curriculum that every department had received, some for the first time in decades. I told him about the after-school programs my district was holding for all levels of students. Elementary students, housed in community centers across town, were able to come together after school for enrichment-based learning. High school students who had struggled in virtual learning, and who had failed classes, were able to attend in-person after-school programs that let them catch up on credits and coursework more efficiently. As I spoke, the staffer dutifully transcribed my words into his legal pad, nodding along with me.
I finished, we smiled and said a few pleasantries, and he walked me to the elevators. As I walked out the door onto Capitol Street, I couldn’t stop wondering if I had given the right answer, the one he was looking for. I felt like a student walking out of a test, thinking if I had made a good grade.
For so long, educators have had to stick to funding formulas with very specific guidelines for spending and try to fit our students into those red-taped boxes. For what feels like the first time, we’re finally getting to use the money as we see fit to meet the needs of our kids. That’s because the money we got after COVID isn’t just the single-largest federal investment in education – it’s also the most flexible funding we’ve ever gotten. By and large, CARES, ESSER, and ARP dollars feature few restrictions, but their purpose is clear: help students get back where they need to be.
The tables are turned, and we have the opportunity to tell our legislators what works best for our kids. When our kids came back from missing the last two months of their school year, we worked hard to put together plans that would recenter them academically and socially. When we stayed open through the delta and omicron waves, we got creative in making lessons that kept them safe and engaged. Now, as we wind down the third year since this all started, we’re already thinking ahead to what we need for next year, and how we’ll help our students succeed when they get back from summer break.
When it gets down to brass tacks, here’s what I need my legislator to know: teachers know what is best for their students, we know how to be innovative in the face of a challenge, and we want to tell you all the great things we’re doing in our schools. Bring us to your district offices, come to our buildings, and listen to our stories so that we can tell you what students need. Nothing empowers us more than your partnership, but our students’ needs won’t expire when the COVID funds do. So, let’s keep the dialog open, and we’ll keep you up to speed with what our kids need and how we should take them there.
Jessica Enderlin Nadzam is a biology and computer science teacher at Jonesboro High School and a Teach Plus Arkansas Policy Fellow. She is also the host of an education policy podcast, Green Apple Pod.