Season 2, Episode 1: Quadrupling Down on Education Funding
Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowen from the Collaborative for Student Success, and this is the “Route K-12 Exploring Education Recovery” podcast. Each week, we travel the country on a kind of “road trip” to talk about the ways federal recovery dollars are being used in states to reshape education. Along the way, we’ll hold up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.
Our guest today is Maryland State Superintendent Muhammad Choudhary. He is going to talk about how the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future provides a big boost for the state’s recovery efforts by layering an additional $4 billion on top of already historic amounts of federal school funding. He’ll also talk about his involvement with the Coalition to Advance Future Student Success, a national group of groups of education leaders that pay close attention to how federal recovery dollars are being spent.
Jim Cowen: Sir, thank you for joining us today. Appreciate it.
Mohammad Choudhary: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate you guys inviting me to talk about work happening in our state and just to further inform the work happening across the country while also learning from each other. So, I really appreciate the opportunity and I’m looking forward to the conversation.
Jim Cowen: Outstanding. Well, first off you haven’t been in the seat for very long. You’ve been in there since July and I know you’re coming from the great state of Texas also. How’s the transition going? Are you a Navy fan now? Have you had some crab cakes?
Mohammad Choudhary: I have had many crab cakes and as well as a few slices of Smith Island cakes, which is the Maryland cake from Smith Island. But outside of that, I will not be changing my allegiance to sports teams and stuff. I am born and raised in Los Angeles but that does not mean that I do not root for children everywhere and dedicate my entire life to them and so, even if they’re wearing a Boston Celtics jersey, I will work hard to support them.
So, the transition is going well. I’m a year and a few months in, and I, you know, worked in large school systems; Los Angeles Unified, which is, pretty much, almost the size of Maryland, it has lost enrollment over time. And then I worked in Dallas in the Independent school district in San Antonio. And a lot of my work with the superintendents that I did, I served in roles as chief strategy officer and such in some of the lowest performing and poorest school systems in the country. Similar to the challenges we have in, you know, Baltimore city and other places in our state here in Maryland and experienced a lot of success in resuscitating hope, and bringing it back and being on track towards being able to achieve great things for our kids.
I’ll end with this. I’m a product of Title I schools. I went to 100% Title I schools. I’m a Muslim kid who grew up around Blacks, Mexicans and Koreans in Los Angeles and I’m a government kid. I’m a Head Start kid. And so, this is personal. Every single aspect of it and every day is defined by what is the most struggling and lowest performing student going through and that’s how I will define my tenure. So, a year in, I will tell you that I know I can do this. With the team I have and the team I’ve inherited and everything else. And something else I look forward to talk to you about today is something called the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future that is very different than any other state has in its arsenal, mixed in with the federal ESSER dollars and the moments coming up since the pandemic.
Jim Cowen: Well, let’s go into that then. It’s back to school time, right? And, across the nation, can you give us a sense how you think students and parents are just sort of feeling right now, like coming into the school year and what are sort of your big bets, coming into this new year?
Mohammad Choudhary: Yeah, Maryland was one of the last states to fully reopen. It was like in the top three for taking longer to reopen and we know the data has come out that those who waited longer to come back to in person have experienced larger losses and gains and social, emotional tolls, and even losses not just academically, but just even enrollment disruption and people leaving the system etc. And so last year, which was my first year, we were supposed to have a normal return back to in person, but it was also far from normal, you know, quarantining, masking. We were one of the states that kept our schools open by taking proactive measures at the state level, taking the decision away from the locals and making it for them. And then, we had that horrible January in the country with Omicron and everything else and so it wasn’t really a normal year. This year, and the reason why I shared the last year now talking about this year is, there’s that feeling again that this will be that normal year in terms of not having to have COVID in your face as it was.
Now, COVID has not gone away, but we know so much more now with vaccines and everything else. And the CDC has also evolved where it’s at with its guidance. So, one, we’re just looking forward for kids to be reconnected in school in just a normal, predictable manner. Like that matters in all of this—just bringing back predictability in school, where I have lunch, I can sit with my friend without this thing in front of me. I can see their face, etc. Or where did Mohammad disappear to for two weeks? He was in quarantine and then he came back like. That’s going to be different this year.
So that is going well so far our systems have opened up, and so far things feel, you know, in terms of what we remembered school to be. However, what is not normal is the level of loss and achievement and social-emotional health and toll that has the pandemic has had on our students. And of course that has been felt even disproportionately with our historically underserved students. And so that I have said from the beginning, from my very first presentation to the board, is a return to normal is not good enough. And that’s just not going to work and we have to take silver linings, and I hate to put it like this, that we learned from the pandemic this moment, one time infusion of ESSER dollars—plus what we have in our arsenal is this historic Blueprint for Maryland’s [Future Education Reform law] and a State Department of Education, who is willing to think outside the box and disrupt lines to figure it out for kids—we have to seize that moment. And so, I think that’s where our energy is right now, while also returning to normalcy and dealing with what I call the pandemic lull of just students having mental health and other challenges, including our staff, as we start this school year.
Jim Cowen: Yeah. Just as a parent myself, like you mentioned, just this cognitive benefit of returning back to school in a normal way. I see it firsthand in my two daughters that go to back to school. There’s just this excitement that returns of going back to class, seeing friends and getting back into that rhythm. It’s kind of hard to put your finger on the value of that in just sort of normal development for kids, so I’m glad to hear you just mention that outright as the value of returning there.
You started to talk some about the ESSER dollars, you know, that’s a big focus of us and, you know, something we’re watching too. And we know that we’re coming up on one of the timelines for the spending of ESSER I. There’s three big pools of spending. I’m curious to hear from you, like what signs you’re seeing that like these funds are working or what your hope is for some of those funds and, you know, again, like where’s your passion on that?
Mohammad Choudhary: Yeah, so one thing, Jim, I’m all about nuance. So, these headlines about districts not spending fast enough or, you know, they have this many dollars left in the tank. You know, I recently did a very deep dive presentation to our State Board on this and we also have a landing page that’s dedicated where you can track district spending on our state website and stuff that we built. We have to remember there’s three tranches of money at rapid paces that drop to school systems. And each tranche has different deadlines, right? But each tranche came at different moments and what spending looks like in terms of draw downs and procurement and calculation, all those things matter as well. So, you might like, “oh my gosh, they have not drawn down. The balance still says this,” but the school systems have already obligated it, it just hasn’t hit yet, right? So, there’re just nuance differences between spending and obligated, etc.
But the thing that I will tell you is our school systems are on track to spending dollars. You know, the first traunch wave of ESSER I, the vast majority of it has been spent down and everything else. The second tranche is kind of approaching the halfway mark and the third tranche, which you can spend up to 2024 and U.S. Ed has even created more flexibility for like facilities projects, right? Again, another nuance. How long does it take to do facilities, project? So, they’re on track. But the first tranche was dedicated to a lot of safety and devices and masking and all of that mitigation measures, people forget that. It’s like, “Oh, the first tranche had to be used to do high doses tutoring right out of the gate.” No, the first tranche was to help school systems go from—I was in San Antonio, 90% Title I district, we had a five year plan to get to one to one devices. We went one to one overnight and then, you know, all of that in the midst of, you know, everyone ordering at the same time. So, one thing the first tranche did for all of our school systems is get to one to one devices immediately. Frankly, we’re now talking like one to three devices, right? Hotspots, etc. Maryland is very diverse; we have rural areas, the urban core, etc. There’re parts of western Maryland where you drive your cellphone is not going to work, etc. and what that looks like. And so, the school systems are on track to spending down where they need to be.
Now as we came into a shift from online learning to a return to in person and the second tranche has kicked in, now you’re beginning to see the other aspects of the dollars coming in. Where they added those additional counselors, trained up their additional instructional assistance like Baltimore city has done to do innovative scheduling, find flex time, do high dosage tutoring, etc.
So, our school systems are in the thick of it. Just like anything, implementation is messy and you’re asking people to do something that they have never tried before, but I always say fail forward as long as you’re going forward. And so, I believe that’s where our school systems are and, again, the thing that I think I’m just going to keep hitting back on you is we are also in the backdrop of a very historic moment in Maryland because we are implementing a law that essentially touches every aspect of our educational system. There is no other law you can point to in the last decades that looks like it.
And so, they also have to submit their plans to implement that law, which is infusing permanent per pupil increases, permanent weight increases. So, unlike other states, our state is quadrupling down on education funding. It is like four-plus billion dollars over the next 10 years, bringing teacher pay up, redefining college and career readiness, requiring high dosage tutoring in the early grades, upgrading how reading is taught, etc.
So, I have all of that in my arsenal plus the federal dollars. So, as I say, we are going to get this right, whatever it takes. I tell my other state chiefs, I’m like, you know, I came here for this very reason. Like if we can get this right, it means a lot for the country and other states. And so that’s what I’m excited about.
Jim Cowen: Yeah. We are trying to capture that nuance too of none of this is happening in a vacuum. Like we’re dealing with this massive disruption to the country we’re dealing with probably a more politically divisive environment we’ve ever had before.
Mohammad Choudhary: Absolutely.
Jim Cowen: We’re dealing with capacity issues on labor and teachers and an economic situation. So, none of this is done without being impacted by multiple variables that are leading in on you at the same time. So, we are super appreciative of that and applaud the ability to navigate those circumstances.
What we are seeing, and I know you’re seeing, is lots of groups are keen to sort of hold up the bright lights that are happening. We are doing it, you know, we’re right there. We have something called Education Recovery Hub that we have, you know, highlighted examples because everyone wants to know, like, what are the things that are working? What are the things that are actually impacting kids that we can sort of get excited about and hopefully get replicated in other states. And definitely on the Recovery Hub we flagged, because we brought in a group of experts to say it’s not just us saying this but they like it too, you mentioned earlier Baltimore city and we brought up how recovery dollars we’re helping to develop individualized learning plans for every student. Great example. Are there others like that, that you are particularly hopeful for, for Maryland? You know, things like that that are happening we want to shout that from the rooftops.
Mohammad Choudhary: Yeah, there’re several. Some that are starting out with a small pilot that is being scaled and some they’re in the thick of their pilot and early results look good. And some, you know, messy starts, but they’re rebounding and readjusting. One of the things that I’m really excited about is our state is investing in literacy, not just in the K-three spectrum, but going down to pre-K as well and making sure that literacy is thought of as a pre-K through third grade experience as a whole. And so, one of the things that we have done is we have something called Transitional Supplemental Tutoring Dollars that our state is investing through the Blueprint. And essentially, it’s a per pupil bump at the early grades that school systems have. And they are required to essentially do high dosage targeted tutoring for students who are struggling with mathematical and reading concepts and intervening early. And our school systems have embraced that, Baltimore is definitely taken advantage of that. And then of course they’re syncing up that with their reconnect, restore and reimagine work that you guys have highlighted. But other school systems, for example, we have a school system called Kent County, a small school system, but it is doing high dosage tutoring leveraging college students, and bringing them in and really maximizing the school day. Because people think, “OK, let’s do high dosage tutoring,” but you need staff for it. It’s not just take the existing teacher and do high dosage tutoring because the existing teacher has to be somewhere else when those small group teacher students of three to five groups of students who are being tutored.
So you need a bench of people to pull from, and what I have really loved about our ability to leverage this moment is schools are opening themselves up to the community and to use the community as a way to help recover student and then accelerate their learning. And I don’t mean like the classic volunteers sign up. I actually mean like you are going to partner with your local university. You are going to take college students. You’re going to train them on mini lessons on how to deliver high quality, explicit phonics instruction. And they are going to do that with a small group of students versus the traditional just come in and I want you to just read with these students. And so that’s where our school systems are and they’re doing exciting designs like this. So, Kent County is one, Frederick County is another one that is in our urban core. It’s a fast growing district. So that’s one I would point to, another one I would point to is I used my state set aside dollars to do something called Maryland Leads. And it’s seven key strategies.
It’s one common app and you could access seven strategies. You can go for seven, you can go for two. But if you do certain ones, I’ll give you additional bonus dollars. And if you match and throw in your own dollars, I’ll match you because I’m all about seeding things that are going to stick to the bones and last, not one-off things. And so, one of my priority areas on there was grow your own staff. Maryland is, also like a good chunk of the country, predominantly white in terms of our teaching core and our student population is fast diversifying as not kept up pace.
So one of the things that every district got grant dollars for is to launch their own cohort of grow your own future teachers and that cohort is far more diverse than what teacher ed is producing. And so, they’re taking TA’s teaching assistants, they’re taking high school students, they’re taking career changes and they’re putting them into a cohort model. They’re subsidizing their debt. They’re making sure they stay on track to their classes. They’re helping them navigate through the university and they’re guaranteeing them come back and teach here in this high need school for three, four years, and we will wipe out your debt if you commit to that. I’m very excited to see the fruit bearing on that because, long term, that’s going to be our strategy for diversifying the profession here.
Jim Cowen: So that’s really interesting. I don’t know if we’ve captured Maryland Leads in these other examples that you’ve laid out, but we will. We’ll dig into these because I think it’d be great to help promote these because they sound super promising.
So another question, I know that you’ve been involved and Maryland’s been represented in this organization called the Coalition to Advance Future Student Success, which sounds a lot like my organization actually. But this one is being led by our friends at the Council for Chief State School Officers, CCSSO. How is that set up? What is the hope there?
Mohammad Choudhary: I think at the end of the day, it’s about being able to seize this moment that we’re in and not return to normal in the way we talked about it, right? At a certain point, we’ve been saying let’s just return to normal return to in person learning. That’s not what this is about. It’s building off of this theme that my state board and I often like to say “a return to normal is not good enough.” It won’t be good enough. It wasn’t good enough at that time. And so we need to seize this moment and design and redesign like there’s no tomorrow. It’s still early on but one of the benefits of it is that you get to learn from one another, right? You get to pressure test your ideas, you get to borrow from each other. You can essentially say, “Hey, this worked in your state. What were the lessons learned? I’m barely starting out. So let’s do some work around that.”
You know, the CCSSO has done really great work around high quality instructional materials, for example. We know the curriculum matters and that network has been very powerful. So, coming into a state that originally was not part of that network, because not all 50 are automatically part of it, you, you kind of sign up and some of then take more of a lead than others. So me, I just had our state sign up for that.
So to help my deputy of teaching and learning, to be able to have another set of chief academic officers throughout the country, too, that she can lean on. To pressure test ideas and apply lessons learned from Louisiana, Texas, and others. I appreciate that. But really it’s about, you know, you guys have your hub that is showing like how people are doing creative things to help students recover and accelerate learning, and really ultimately not return back to normal as we thought of it.
That’s what this is about. And then also ultimately, the role that the CCSSO plays is also pushing on the feds to say, Hey, you had these rules. That you modified or gave waivers from, maybe make them permanent, you know. I’ll give you an example. We served meals in very creative ways during the pandemic, right.
And we realized how much people are dependent on meals at the school level. I mean, you saw pictures nationally online, and we fed communities and everything else, but that a waiver allowed that a waiver said, hey, you can serve multiple meals, in a single day, or you can do weekend meals and those kinds of things.
So we should make that type of policy more permanent, so people can be creative with how they distribute meals, to students and such same thing goes for, when it comes to how to leverage Title I dollars, how to leverage policy, how to think of your state asset plan, all of those things. So that’s what I’m excited about this work happening as a coalition.
Jim Cowen: So for each episode we bring in a parent question for you to respond to. And so here’s our, here’s our question for this week:
Jean Bunker: Hi Superintendent Choudhary. My name is Jane Bonker and I am a proud mom of three boys, all of whom are going to or recently went to Maryland Public Schools. I know our state is receiving federal funding to help with new programs following the pandemic, kids will definitely need that support to catch up, but what happens when that money runs out? How are you helping schools make the tough choices about how to continue the most valuable programs? Thank you.
Mohammad Choudhary: Yeah, it’s a great question. First, we have a landing page on our state website at MarylandPublicSchools.org, that tracks district spending on how they’re spending down their ESSER dollars, and the different tranches. But the other thing parents should know, and if this is not happening in your district it is supposed to be happening—and I do cycles of monitoring as part of the US Ed’s requirements, but also, we add our own flare to it on top of it—are you doing what you said you were going to do? Their district ESSER plans have to be published on their site. They’re supposed to update them every six months. They should be easily accessible, so depending on which school system you are in that should be true. If not, then that’s not okay and we need to make sure that’s true.
Then, the second thing I would say, this conversation about a fiscal cliff. I’m seeing this quite a bit and, you know, the fiscal cliff conversation may be true for some systems and not true for other systems or may not be true at all, right? And so, I think for Maryland, the way we have been thinking about it, is one I have built a team, my finance team who supports our CFOs to think strategically over time about how you make your investments. One of the benefits of having 24 school systems is I can hang out with them quite a bit and connect with them. So, you know, we have biweekly check-ins and think through like, “what does student-based budgeting look like over time?” When we gave our Maryland leads grant, we said like, “Hey, if you’re going to put a one time expense in there, then is it truly designed to only meet that moment in time? Or is it something that you’re creating a permanent expectation of and you need to think about your funding source?” So, one of the things we do is I’ve redesigned how we do our grant making. We ask sustainability questions and what you’re going to do around that.
But the other thing to know about Maryland that is very unique is that it is the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. I am not kidding when I say it is $4-plus billion over the next 10 years that have increased its per pupil weight. All that stuff is happening right now. It’s happened even during the last two years as the law got approved in phases and all of these weights for English language learners, special education students, the state based per pupil is increasing. And then there’s other dollars that you access as well. Those things will help very much so for our systems, for the investments they’re using with ESSER dollars. The extra staff that they were able to pick up through ESSER dollars they can assume that with per pupil increases that the state is making over the next 10 years. And every year the pot of money for school systems gets better and better.
I am fortunate to be in a state with a progressive assembly who has said that this is the investment that we want to make. And so, right when I started was the first year of the law and the implementation. So even in this State Department of Education there’s a mandate for redesigning it for what I call “Generation Blueprint.” And so that’s what I would answer to your question about the fiscal cliff.
Now there are districts that do need to think about what enrollment looks like over time. There are districts that have been losing enrollment even before the pandemic and it got exacerbated and we were a system that took longer than we should have to reopen and that led to families opting out. And then there’s just the COVID disruption of people reassessing their lives. And then that’s going to leave a new state of being around you have a school that’s not operating in a fiscally sustainable way. What do you do with that? And that conversation, and we all know school consolidations or restructuring is one of the most controversial and hardest things to do. But there are some of our systems that will have to have that conversation because the enrollment is just not going to return to what it was. And then I have the opposite of that. Fast growing suburbs who need more facilities dollars to house their pre-K because we’re quadrupling down on full day pre-K expansion all the way to three-year-olds, but they don’t have the facility space to do that. So, we have both problems on their side, coupled with historic state investments.
Jim Cowen: I think that response was much more than what probably thought was coming. Much more comprehensive. I just have one last question for you and it’s kind of a personal one, but I was just reading your bio this week and in there you had put down your passion for education began with this diverse and engaging experiences as a child and a student attending largely economically disadvantaged schools in Los Angeles. So, I’m just curious, given where you are now as the top education official in a state, what would you say to that same kid who was growing up in those Los Angeles or to any kid who was facing such?
Mohammad Choudhary: I would tell that kid and other kids that even though you got suspended in middle school, even though you did not have straight A’s, even though some of your friends went off to four years and you chose to go to a community college—which changed your life—and even though you are usually not the types of faces and names the pictures and halls of former leaders look like, you can aspire to and realize and be in a position to help all those kids who are just like you and have that decision making authority entrusted on you with a state board, and make that happen for you.
You can struggle all throughout school, get the help you need, persist through it and make it happen, regardless of your family’s wealth and socioeconomic status and everything else. But along the way, you need to have a system that’s designed to support you that does not let you that does not let you fall back. Does not relent when you opt out of wanting to show up to something. I was fortunate to have those key moments at various points in my career. And then ultimately the determination kicked in and there was no stopping me. But there were moments where it could have just stopped me, but there’re systems designed for me, whether it was in the form of a single teacher who knocked at my parents’ house and said he didn’t come to mandatory tutoring and he better come, to a system that says, “You know what? He can pass that AP class. Just because he’s not the perfect 4.0 students, he can make it happen. He has qualities and we’re going to look at it in a different way and we’re going to give access to them. Then ultimately, that leads to what you want to do in life. And for me, it was ultimately as a teacher. I wanted to be a teacher because my grandfather started the first school in Bangladesh when they were not allowed to start schools in the remote villages of Bangladesh, he said, “Screw that I’m going to create four walls.” I took a trip as a spoiled American kid and I walked into those four walls, and I said, “I want to build schools.” And that was the summer between middle school and high school. And then the rest is history.
Then I wanted to become a State Superintendent because I got tired of people in central office screwing things up when I worked my butt off with my principal and teachers to do the right thing and get our kids caught up and then all of a sudden I see them fall off. So, I said, “I need to be in those rooms where those decisions get made.” And I put myself on the path to do that. And Maryland was crazy enough to invite me to do that here.
Jim Cowen: Oh, that’s great. Maryland State Superintendent of schools, Mohammad Choudhary. Thanks for your time today.
Mohammad Choudhary: Thank you Jim so much. I really appreciate it and I’m looking forward to future episodes and listening and learning from them. Thank you.
Jim Cowen This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery. For each week, we showcase ways federal recovery funds are reshaping schools by talking to the people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Reach out to us at EduRecoveryHub.org/RouteK12 or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.
About Jim Cowen
Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.