Federal COVID Relief for Schools Might Not Reach Classrooms

Federal COVID Relief for Schools Might Not Reach Classrooms

Students use computers from socially-distanced desks during an in-person hybrid learning day at the Mount Vernon Community School in Alexandria, Va., March 2, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Yet half of Congress’s unprecedented largesse on school COVID relief might not even be spent for that purpose.

The indiscriminate and unprecedented disruption of U.S. public schools caused by COVID-19 was met with an equally indiscriminate and unprecedented response from Congress. Coming in three waves, in two bills signed by President Trump and one far larger, the American Rescue Plan (ARP), signed by President Biden, Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding totaled almost $190 billion, by far the largest federal investment in public schools ever. Primarily advertised as aid to reopen schools, and secondarily to help with recovery from pandemic fallout, ESSER funds came with few guardrails on how school districts might spend them. Now, as the initial receipts for ESSER funding come in after the first full pandemic school year, it seems probable that half or more of federal COVID relief funding could end up not going to COVID relief at all.

ESSER’s size, broad application, and long timeline make it impossible to say specifically how the funds will be used. But in a new report, I use a simple equation to ground an approximation from what we now know: ESSER= Reopening spending + Recovery spending + the Remainder. That is, part of ESSER funds will go to reopening schools, another part will go to pandemic recovery, and the remainder will go to other uses not directly related to the pandemic.

So how much ESSER funding might go to reopening? With no full accounting available, state reports on ESSER spending required under ARP provide an early approximation. On average, the 29 states that reported school districts’ ESSER spending show just 7 percent of their total ESSER funding had been drawn down late in the 2020–21 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 lag between districts and states, and more will be used for reopening this year. But even with these caveats, it’s safe to assume that reopening spending will amount to 20 percent of ESSER funding or less. That leaves $136 billion of $171 billion left over.

How much for recovery? Recovery costs are harder to estimate, but ARP requires that a minimum of 12 percent of district’s ESSER funding go directly to recovery. Substantially more could be spent on recovery efforts, through popular and expensive policy ideas such as tutoring programs and extended school years and school days. However, school districts face the reality that programs popular among policy wonks don’t seem to be popular with parents. Understanding America Survey data from this May showed tepid demand among parents for summer school, in-person tutoring, or expanded school days or years. School districts won’t be able to spend a huge amount of ESSER funds on programs students won’t use. Indeed, early looks at district plans show many are not plugging ESSER dollars into aggressive new recovery programs. Districts’ recovery spending will probably exceed the minimum $22 billion, or $420 per pupil, required under ARP, but limited demand for big-ticket recovery programs means marginal spending on recovery would be ample, if not difficult to spend, at double that amount.

Why would reopening and recovery spending be so low? On reopening, the explanation could be that funding was never a major obstacle. A large share of districts spent most of last year offering partial or full in-person instruction, and did so without depleting even the first round of ESSER funding. Another possible explanation comes from the challenges districts face in spending one-time money at this scale. The largest expenses for schools come from staff spending. However, using so much ESSER funding to hire staff sets districts up for a fiscal cliff, meaning that a few years from now, they’ll have to reckon with much-larger payrolls even as federal ESSER money dries up. It is responsible for districts to avoid those fiscal cliffs. But, ironically, the structure of ESSER makes it difficult to spend that much money only on pandemic recovery.

Returning 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 recovery, that leaves more than half of district ESSER funding in the remainder part of the ESSER-funding equation, to be spent for reasons other than pandemic relief. It should be no surprise that the Congressional Budget Office estimated that COVID education-relief funds will not be fully spent until 2028.

Congress’s unprecedented largesse on school COVID relief will prove to be a blunder. Taxpayers were told that these funds were necessary to get schools to reopen and recover from the pandemic. In fact, total ESSER funding, amounting to $1,475 per U.S. household, was likely at least $700 per household more than was needed.

Congress’s irresponsible spending now leaves school districts in an unprecedented position: flush with federal funding and in search of responsible ways to use it. Like it or not, it is up to public-school districts, with their spotty track record for prudently using major infusions of funds, to capitalize on the opportunities that come with excessive “COVID relief” funding.

Nat Malkus is a resident scholar and the deputy director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


Originally Posted on: https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/08/shouldnt-schools-federal-covid-relief-funds-be-spent-on-covid-relief/
[By: Nat Malkus

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