Half of the federal funds are gone, but there are academic losses in Georgia

“They realized they needed a whole new rocket design, hence the Saturn 5 rocket,” he told reporters in October as he unveiled the scorecard he and Stanford education professor Sean Reardon created. “What many districts are doing now,” Kane continued, “is effectively launching bottle rockets at the moon…”

In a subsequent interview, Kane told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that according to her analysis, it should cost a third of a year’s pre-pandemic tuition costs to catch up, since Georgia lost a third of a year. Georgia reported spending $12 billion on tuition in the 2018-19 school year. So, according to their formula, catching up should cost about $4 billion.

In theory, Georgian schools should be able to afford it. The federal government them approximately $6 billion in three waves of pandemic-related emergency funding. However, much of the money, half of which has been spent, has gone on masks, cleaning supplies and other safety precautions, as well as technology, mental health support and surgeries.

All of these are important for education, but not the same as sanitation. Experts say small-group tutoring, a costly endeavor, may be the best way to close learning gaps.

Only with the last wave of money did Congress order a remedy. America’s rescue plan gave Georgia schools about $4 billion, of which only a fifth had to be used for learning disabilities.

The state’s 180 school districts can choose how to spend it. Some were allocated far above the minimum. Fulton County, for example, has committed two-thirds of its $169 million to redevelopment and is one of the few counties in the greater Atlanta area to have committed enough under the Kane-Reardon formula. Some went with the minimum.

Many of the districts contacted by the AJC did not know what to think of their research.

Marietta Superintendent Grant Rivera called it a “fascinating analysis” and then explained how he used some of the federal money to bolster his teaching staff: He hired 45 teachers who can fill in when a class teacher is absent or help in the classroom when one isn’t Replacement available is required. The district has spent nearly twice the federal minimum on the cleanup, but that’s about a quarter of what the professors’ formula says it will cost to catch up with every student.

Trisha Tanner, a fifth-grade teacher at Marietta’s Hickory Hills Elementary School, said her buddy Shirley Westbrook made a big difference. During the half days that Westbrook is there, the students who need it can get more attention.

“There’s only a limited number of teachers who can walk around,” Tanner said. “We have a class size of 20. If there are two of us in here, we can get stuff done.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Georgia State University economics professor Tim Sass has examined the impact of the pandemic on metro Atlanta schools. He and a colleague, Salma Ali, published a sobering study in November using internal test results in Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties. It found that the return to near-universal face-to-face learning last school year “did not produce any significant improvements in mean growth in math or reading achievement.”

Sass, who is familiar with Kane and Reardon’s new work, said in an email to the AJC that their results “roughly” match his own.

“One can argue about the exact dollar amount, but the general conclusions they draw are, I think, on target,” Sass wrote. “Many students have fallen far behind…”

Getting them back on track, he added, will be expensive.