Federal COVID help for schools may not reach classrooms

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Students use computers from socially remote offices during an in-person blended learning day at Mount Vernon Community School in Alexandria, Va. On March 2, 2021. (Tom Brenner / Reuters)

Yet half of Congress’ unprecedented largesse for COVID school relief may not even be spent for this purpose.

The The indiscriminate and unprecedented disruption of U.S. public schools caused by COVID-19 has met an equally indiscriminate and unprecedented response from Congress. Coming in three waves, in two bills signed by President Trump and one much larger, the American Rescue Plan (ARP), signed by President Biden, funding emergency aid to elementary and secondary schools (ESSER) totaled nearly $ 190 billion, by far the largest investment in public schools ever. Primarily advertised as aid to reopen schools, and secondarily to aid recovery from the fallout from a pandemic, ESSER funds came with little safeguards over how school districts might spend them. Now, as the initial receipts for ESSER funding arrive after the first full pandemic school year, it seems likely that half or more of the federal COVID relief funding could end up not going to the COVID relief at all.

The size of ESSER, its wide application and its long lead time make it difficult to say precisely how the funds will be used. But in a new report, I’m using a simple equation to form an approximation of what we now know: ESSER = Reopening Expenses + Recovery Expenses + Remainder. In other words, part of ESSER funds will go to reopening schools, another part will go to pandemic recovery and the rest will go to other uses not directly related to the pandemic.

So how many ESSER funds could be spent on reopening? In the absence of complete accounting, the state reports on ESSER expenditures required under the ARP provide a first approximation. On average, the 29 states that reported school district ESSER spending show that only 7% of their total ESSER funding had been withdrawn by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, when nearly all school districts had reopened for. in-person learning. Of course, this is a low estimate. Some ESSER funding is caught in a reporting mismatch between districts and states, and more will be used for the reopening this year. But even with these caveats, it’s safe to assume that reopening spending will be 20% of ESSER funding or less. There is $ 136 billion left out of $ 171 billion.

How much for recovery? Recovery costs are more difficult to estimate, but the ARP requires that a minimum of 12 percent of the district’s ESSER funding go directly to recovery. Substantial larger spending could be spent on recovery efforts, thanks to popular and costly political ideas such as tutoring programs and school years and extended school days. However, school districts are faced with the reality that programs popular with political fools don’t seem to be popular with parents. Understanding the May U.S. Survey Data show low demand among parents for summer school, in-person tutoring, or extended school days or years. School districts will not be able to spend a huge amount of ESSER funds on programs that students will not use. Indeed, the first glances at the district plans show many are not investing ESSER dollars in aggressive new recovery programs. District recovery spending is likely to exceed the minimum of $ 22 billion, or $ 420 per student, required under ARP, but limited demand for expensive recovery programs means marginal recovery spending would be sufficient. even difficult, twice that amount.

Why would reopening and stimulus spending be so low? When it reopens, the explanation could be that funding has never been a major obstacle. Much of the district has spent most of the past year offering partial or full face-to-face instruction, and has done so without exhausting even the first cycle of ESSER funding. Another possible explanation comes from the challenges that districts face in spending one-time money at this scale. The most important expenses for schools come from personnel expenses. However, using so much ESSER funds to hire staff prepares districts for a fiscal cliff, which means that in a few years they will have to reckon with much larger payrolls even as federal ESSER money dries up. . He is responsible for the districts to avoid these fiscal cliffs. But, ironically, the structure of ESSER makes it difficult to spend so much money just on pandemic recovery.

Coming back to my equation, then if 20 percent goes to reopening, and even a generous estimate of $ 50 billion, more than double the minimum ARP requirement, goes to clawback, which leaves more half of the district’s ESSER funding into the remaining portion of the ESSER Funding Equation, to be spent for reasons other than pandemic control. It’s no surprise that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that COVID education aid funds will not be fully spent until 2028.

The unprecedented congressional largesse on COVID school relief will prove to be a mistake. Taxpayers have been told these funds are needed for schools to reopen and recover from the pandemic. In fact, the total ESSER funding of $ 1,475 per US household was probably at least $ 700 more per household than needed.

Irresponsible congressional spending now puts school districts in an unprecedented position: flush with federal funding and looking for responsible ways to use it. Like it or not, it is up to public school districts, with their uneven track records of prudent use of major infusions, to capitalize on the opportunities that come with excessive “COVID relief” funding.

Nat Malkus is a resident researcher and deputy director of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.




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