Miguel Cardona, Education Secretary, believes harnessing the positive energy from surviving 2020 and adding federal funds may be the best way to solve long-standing issues.

The Hechinger Report is a non-profit news organization that focuses on education inequality and innovation. This story about federal school funding was produced.

HILLSBORO (Ore.) — Principal Christy Walters has big dreams for her suburban elementary school. She hopes to build on the lessons she learned last year, including better ways to keep in touch with families to help them meet their needs, more effective strategies to recruit and retain diverse staff and new ideas about how to organize lessons that engage students.

She said, “I’m always excited about innovation.” “I don’t feel too tired for this. This is very energizing.

Walters is the Witch Hazel Elementary principal since 2018. The school has a 95 percent student poverty rate and a cheerful staff. Adults here are proud of their resilience in the face of the terrible pandemic.

Alejandra Castrejon, a school secretary, said that “it needs to be done so we just do it.” She helped Spanish-speaking families use Wi-Fi hotspots and tablets provided by the district. “Everybody has just been willing and ready to help.”

This spirit impressed even the top education official in the country.

Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary for Education, said, “I loved that school,” a few weeks following a July visit by Witch Hazel to view its bilingual summer program. “People wanted to go there, from students to educators. It was a place where children felt loved. Staff were supportive there, I felt.

He believes that this optimism is possible in schools all across the country, even though exhausted educators are heading into the 19th month for pandemic learning. He believes he has the ability to harness this energy and use it, along with unprecedented federal cash, to finally fix public education in America.

Cardona is asking Congress to approve $103 Billion in discretionary budget authority for Department of Education in next fiscal year. This represents a 41 percent increase in budget over the current year. This is in addition to $122 billion of pandemic relief funding for K-12 schools, which Congress approved in March under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Cardona stated that educators are “standing strong” and “want to come back stronger than ever.” Students have been waiting. It’s time to deliver.”

If it is approved, federal funding for schools could be a steady stream that’s almost impossible to return, which would mean a significant change in federal control of local schools. This change would not be welcomed by everyone.

But at what price?

The federal government contributes only 8 percent of the funding that schools receive from the local, state, and federal governments each year. The proposal would increase funding for public preschool, mental healthcare counselors, teacher training, and special education services, among other priorities.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, stated that “we’re talking about extraordinarily high increases.” “I am an observer who doubts that the new dollars were spent well or wisely in the past.”

Hess doesn’t believe federal school funding is being used well right now. More money would only exacerbate the problem.

He stated that “most of these dollars have been budgeted and are allocated in a manner which I don’t believe is in the best interest of children.”

Conor Williams is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. He thinks that sending more federal dollars into what he considers a chronically underfunded system, which he views as a bad plan, is a good idea, even if some money is not wisely spent.

He said, “The types of money that we’re referring to are so high that it’s like, yes. It’s a great thing.” “Thank God we’re doing it.”

The pandemic brought the nation’s schools into the homes of tens of million of Americans, giving them a closer look at the system’s failings. Education in America is underfunded, inequitable and often ineffective.

It is true, however, that thousands upon thousands of teachers, principals, and other school staff go to great lengths to support students in emotional and academic difficulties. It is a bilingual immersion school that ensures its students perform at the same level as their low-income peers across the state. Witch Hazel isn’t an exception. Many schools that serve low-income students are not able to provide good academic outcomes for their students, but others do a great job.

Walker stated that the school’s strength, which cannot be measured using a multiple-choice exam, is what has allowed it to survive the pandemic. She said that money alone does not make people feel welcome and supported. Teamwork is what makes them feel loved.

She said, “If we want to do this together in concert, then you know, then there’s no other thing really we need except the people in our building, believing that’s all we need.”

These people must be paid. As positive as staff are, many staffers wish they had smaller classes. This concern was shared by district teachers, according to Michelle Morrison, chief financial officer. Morrison stated that resolving these problems is costly.

She stated that $2.7 million is needed to reduce class size across the district by one. This was her district of 20,000 students.

Research has shown that reducing the class size does not have a significant impact on student academic progress over decades. Smaller classes are easier to manage and more enjoyable to attend. Local districts have the option to invest in class size reduction or any other strategy they choose that falls within the broad categories set out by the federal government under the Every Student Succeeds Act. This governs how federal money is spent in K-12 schools.

Who decides what money is spent?

Cardona’s belief that local leaders will make wise decisions about how to spend their money likely stems from his experience as a teacher. Since 1979, he is one of three former teachers who have held the post in education cabinet. He described his agency as the “connective tissue” that links schools and ensures good ideas are spread quickly.

Federal officials must first ask local officials how they will spend new federal school funding. Kalilah Harris is a veteran of Obama’s administration and the managing Director for K-12 Education Policy at Center for American Progress. This think tank is liberal.

Harris stated that teachers, parents, and other community members have the best information.

She hopes that the feds will encourage leaders in their districts to think big.

She said that “Because so much of the districts were underresourced people don’t even know how to spend the money to innovate and make public education work for their kids.” “You can see people saying, “Oh, we can have more of the things we had before.” But, what was working for children before wasn’t.

Assistant Superintendent Travis Reiman said that what’s not working in Hillsboro for children is the stop-and start funding they have received for years from both the federal government and the state government.

Reiman stated that “Sustainable, adequate funding for K-12 will be key in both the next decade” and the next 20 years. Reiman believes that sustained state funding will be more beneficial in the long-term than the temporary aid the feds have provided so far. This money can’t go toward ongoing costs like salaries.

Morrison, the district’s chief financial officer, doesn’t believe that more federal school funding is the solution. She believes the federal government should pay for their mandates, and that the state should ensure funding is equitable between wealthy districts and those with less resources. She believes that locals should be responsible for paying for their schools.

According to Williams of the Century Foundation, the federal government does a better job protecting civil rights than the state and local governments. He also said that the notion that local school boards are “bastions for democracy” is a misplaced idea.

He said, “No, they are not!” “If that’s what you believe, then you have never been to one.”

Williams stated that he believes it would be better for the country if the federal government ran its schools, even though it isn’t widely held in Washington.

He stated that the Feds would be more in line than the rest of the developed countries and better for overall resource equity and outcome equity to have American public education under their control.

Are more federal dollars equal to more federal control?

Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to support the removal of the federal Department of Education and its expansion. This idea was popularized in 1980 by President Ronald Reagan and gained renewed momentum during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. According to the Department’s website, the first Department of Education was established in 1867. However, it was quickly degraded to an Office of Education. This was “due to concern that [the Department] would exercise too much control on local schools,” according a brief history of the Department.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter created the U.S. Department of Education. Reagan appointed Terrell Bell, a former teacher to head the U.S. Department of Education and dismantle it in 1979.

Bell demanded a study on the condition of American education. In 1983, the result was published as “A Nation at Risk”. This report influenced the thinking over the next decades about education in America. It also supported the notion that federal efforts to improve it were justified.

The federal school funding has fluctuated over the past 40 years depending on which White House member you are. Both the left and right view Cardona’s decision to significantly increase funding as a step towards greater federal control over education.

Williams stated, “Let us imagine, against all odds that we emerge from the crises in which we are, and the money doesn’t disappear right away, but it gets sustained for some time.” Let’s imagine that it takes eight to twelve years to get out of this crisis. Then, a new administration announces that they will add new conditions to the money after we have paid the huge bill.

He said that at this point, he believes local districts would be more dependent on federal school funding, and less likely to walk away from it, regardless of the conditions.

Hess at the conservative American Enterprise Institute called the increase “extraordinary,” but he also said that it wasn’t enough for a significant impact.

He called it “pennies on the dollar”, and pointed out that while the $30 billion Cardona requested would represent a significant increase in federal education spending, it would only be a 4 percent increase on the $762 billion American taxpayers annually spend on public schools. Hess acknowledged that it could be enough to shift control over schools towards the federal government.

He said that Democrats may be worried about what an aggressive, organized, and populist Republican administration would do with the now-supersized department.

Cardona is still many years away from leading a supersized department. He hopes that the Rescue Plan money will encourage more federal investment as he pushes for his budget in a divided Congress.

He said, “While I don’t know if everyone voted for it but I know that all districts are benefiting.” “I hope that this can help both sides to see the positive results of education investments.

Cardona appears to be looking for both lots of federal funds as well as lots of local control, despite a broad definition for “good things” that leaves little oversight over local spending decisions.