Stimulus Funding and the Trap of Incremental Thinking: The role that funders can play in supporting transformational change

As school systems around the country manage the challenge of returning to in-person instruction amidst the surging Delta variant and lost school time, they face yet another challenge: effectively deploying the massive amount of federal COVID relief funds they have received or will receive in the next few months. 

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund allocated almost $200 billion across three stimulus packages to help schools respond to COVID-19 and address academic and other challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.

With each funding announcement, longtime school watchers and advocates for change feel growing trepidation that systems will end up squandering the money by focusing only on short-term problems, effectively restoring a broken system instead of reimagining what schools can be.

The most intractable problems our society faces today can’t be solved with yesterday’s tactics. Forward-thinking advocates for change understand the need for innovation and taking a long-term view when trying to solve the problems of tomorrow. And philanthropists who want to help ensure ESSER funds bring about transformative change can and should play a role. 

While advocating that policymakers use the funds responsibly is important, funders can do more. There are three specific ways funders can support school systems so that they not only recover from the damage of the pandemic but make structural changes that will better prepare students for the challenges of the modern world. 

1. Insist that impacted communities are part of the decision-making process

In times of crisis, both the philanthropic and public sectors tend to swoop in with solutions devised without meaningful input from the communities most impacted by the crisis. Predictably, those solutions often lack investment and as a result, fall well short of catalyzing sustained change. 

The pandemic has taken an enormous toll on students’ mental health, social and emotional well-being, and academic achievement—and the impact has not been equitable. While students in majority-white schools ended the 2020-21 school year about four months behind in math and three months behind in reading, students in majority-Black schools ended up six months behind in both subjects, according to an analysis by McKinsey. The students and families who were most negatively impacted by the pandemic are often the ones who have the least voice when it comes to public policy.

Funders must lead by example here, engaging more directly, more frequently, and more robustly with the communities impacted by their grantmaking, and by adjusting their approach based on what they hear. 

2. Support systemic solutions and innovation, not just immediate needs

The COVID-related challenges facing our education system won’t be solved in one school year, or, for that matter, during the 18-month timeline of the ESSER funding. If we don’t take the time to think critically about how well our current system is set up for the long haul—evaluating everything from physical learning environments to how we engage families in instruction—we won’t make much of a dent in those long-term challenges.

Too many school systems, overwhelmed by the immediate challenges they face, are spending little time thinking strategically about how to use the funds. Many are focusing on near-term increases to instructional time or staffing up; these solutions are helpful when thinking about immediate social and academic challenges, but fall short of catalyzing long-term systemic change.

Funders can help school systems better leverage their ESSER funds for real transformation by facilitating long-term strategic planning efforts. They can encourage grantees working with school systems to think BOTH in the near AND long terms about how to address the challenges of COVID. That might include near-term scaling up, but also finding innovative new ways to deliver instruction, capitalize on what we’ve learned about remote learning, and how to do away with archaic structures like traditional grade levels and classrooms.  

3. Expand your tolerance for risk and innovation

Because of their bureaucratic nature, school districts are poorly equipped to make the most of this kind of one-time influx of funding. As public institutions, they’re hamstrung in their ability to experiment and adapt to change, and their duty to be responsive to multiple constituencies simultaneously often hampers their ability to innovate.

Unfortunately, many philanthropists, too, have favored only proven solutions and demanded rigorous impact reporting from grantees. Intentions aside, these behaviors can also stifle innovation. What our schools desperately need right now are radical new ideas to deal with unprecedented challenges. 

Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to serve as society’s risk capital—to test new ideas and develop new solutions. 

Funders have a lot of freedom to take risks in their giving. With the infusion of stimulus and COVID relief money to address acute near-term problems, funders should be more focused than ever on scaling up research and development and identifying innovative new ways to address old and new problems, and to leverage what they learn to scale those solutions.

This is a rare opportunity

Even amidst the extraordinary challenges of COVID, it’s important to remember that our education system was broken before the pandemic. Using ESSER funds merely to get back to  where we were—an inequitable and outdated system failing to serve too many families—would be a missed opportunity and yet another injustice to the students who have been most harmed by the pandemic.

Reimagining our education system will take the hard work and close collaboration of everyone who touches the system, including funders.