This article was written in partnership with Karen Hawley Miles, president and CEO of Education Resource Strategies, and originally published in Inside Philanthropy

When the American Rescue Plan passed in March, allocating $122 billion to K-12 schools, America’s educators celebrated. Reopening schools and expanding opportunities and support for students who need it most suddenly seemed within reach.

The past year was enormously challenging for most teachers and students, but it also taught us that change actually can happen quickly in public education. We saw that rapid evolution in school design was possible, that technology could be a key tool to support instruction, that teacher roles could be differentiated to benefit students across the spectrum of need, and that learning could be facilitated outside of typical school hours with a variety of partners and programs. 

By investing deeply in school recovery while offering significant flexibility in how those dollars can be spent, Congress has opened the door to change, but not necessarily paved the path. For these short-term dollars to lead to sustainable, successful school designs, philanthropy has a critical role to play by helping school systems apply lessons from the past to ensure federal funding drives significant long-term benefits for our students and communities.

We know from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Race to the Top grants that detailing key goals, aligning strategies and thoughtfully planning the allocation of incoming resources up front yielded lasting reforms in places like Louisiana and Tennessee that are still paying off today. On the other hand, temporary programs added to systems that already struggled to serve all students well was not a recipe for success. In too many places, staff and programs were just added to existing structures—rather than being invested in new designs—and with no plan for sustainability, leading to huge fiscal challenges when the federal ARRA funding ended.

Moments of transformational change like this are ripe for learning, with heavy costs for failing to produce real, lasting results.

A decade later, the COVID pandemic has shined a spotlight on, and compounded, challenges our schools and students already faced. It also forced communities to reconsider what they really want and need from public education going forward. We must ensure federal funds are spent thoughtfully to address both. This means taking a “do now” approach to recovery and planning to “build toward” a longer-term vision over the next three years that will sustainably improve the student and teacher experiences.

Moments of transformational change like this are ripe for learning, with heavy costs for failing to produce real, lasting results. The nonprofit Education Resource Strategies identified five “power strategies” grounded in years of research on how best to support students’ academic and social-emotional development in ways that can be sustained over time. They encourage investing resources to give students access to empowering, adaptable instruction; expanded time and targeted attention; a strong, diverse teaching force; positive student-adult relationships; and partnership with families, community organizations and other out-of-school providers.

At the end of the day, states and school districts will need to find impactful ways to spend their recovery funds to meet local needs and contexts, and philanthropy can help them identify effective, evidence-based strategies from which to pick. For example, teachers can be empowered with high-quality curriculum and additional time to assess and accelerate student learning. Instructional time can be expanded both inside and outside traditional school hours, especially for students with the greatest needs, ensuring they receive individualized supports to reach grade-level standards. We can build on lessons from remote learning to create stronger virtual, hybrid learning opportunities that democratize access to great teachers, change cost structures, and expand course offerings. And partnerships with families and communities can be strengthened to address children’s varying academic and social-emotional outcomes.

Federal stimulus dollars offer the opportunity to scale innovative approaches like these that school districts have been prototyping and piloting for several years, often with philanthropic investment. At the same time, with the new school year starting and 2022–23 budget season just around the corner, philanthropy can continue to play a critical role in catalyzing school system transformation. Specifically, funders should consider:

  • Encouraging districts to invest in research-backed design changes that address critical student needs now and lay a sustainable foundation for lasting improvement.

  • Continuing to support the evaluation of innovation efforts through validation studies and continuous improvement structures that allow for rapid learning on new approaches.

  • Expanding the availability of support providers to help systems build capabilities to engage in this work, including by working closely with cohorts of systems to rapidly learn together.

  • Advancing the development of easily accessible and translatable planning and design tools that districts can use to guide rapid and complex decision-making

  • Supporting networks and cohorts of leaders and systems collaborating on shared strategies to ensure that lessons are translated for sector-wide use.

The next few years bring unprecedented federal investment in U.S. public education, thanks to the American Rescue Plan. It’s up to philanthropy to support our nation’s school districts in engaging in long-term planning, pursuing ongoing learning and improvement strategies, and ensuring careful allocation of these resources based on impact. Not doing so now will have long-lasting implications for our children’s and country’s future.