Education Funding

Congress Passed $1B for School Safety Last Year. Only 38 Districts Have Gotten Money

By Mark Lieberman — March 30, 2023 7 min read
Families of the Uvalde victims silently protest Senate inaction and mass shootings following the six-month anniversary of the Robb Elementary School massacre on Dec. 06, 2022 in Washington.
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Last May, 19 students and two teachers lost their lives in the third deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

A month later, President Joe Biden signed into law the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which included nearly $1 billion for school districts to spend on mental health services, violence and drug use prevention and treatment, and other supports to strengthen student safety and health.

Ten months after the Uvalde shooting, and nine months after the federal law passed, only 38 of the nation’s 13,000 public school districts have seen a cent from those funds.

That’s because only one state has finished accepting applications from districts that want the money and awarding funds. More than a dozen states haven’t even announced plans for a grant program that would allow districts to compete for awards.

The delays highlight a common gap between expectations and reality on matters of government funding for K-12 schools. Reams of regulations, political wrangling, and overburdened bureaucracies stand between what lawmakers want schools to have and what schools can actually use.

On March 20, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona criticized states that haven’t moved forward with school safety grants from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. “We’ve got to do better,” he said at a conference in Washington. “Our students are in great need now.”

The school safety grants were part of a broader legislative package that marked Congress’ first substantial action in response to a mass shooting in nearly three decades. Schools have broadly faced a spike in mental health challenges among students and staff in the aftermath of the pandemic. Local communities have suffered immensely in the wake of gun violence on school grounds.

More than three dozen shootings that led to injuries or deaths have occurred on K-12 school property since the Uvalde tragedy, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker. Most recently, three adults and three children died Monday in a shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn.

Many states haven’t started doling out grants

Oklahoma, so far, is the only state to start and finish an application process for Stronger Connections grants funded through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. More than 120 districts applied for grants totaling $38 million—more than triple the $11 million available to the state from the federal government. The state awarded those funds earlier this year to 38 districts.

Eight states are currently accepting applications from school districts, according to a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson. Another 23 have announced grant programs through which they’ll start accepting applications in the next few months.

But seventeen states haven’t announced a grant process for districts to receive the funds, according to the department’s tally. The department spokesperson said some states have taken longer because new governors just took over this year. Fourteen of those 17 states have a new governor, but the remaining three—Delaware, Mississippi, and Missouri—do not.

The longer it takes for schools to get these funds, the longer teachers will have to perform above and beyond their duties to help students deal with mental health challenges, said Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools in New Jersey.

“While schools are concerned about learning delays post-COVID, we cannot address those delays successfully if our students are not mentally and emotionally ready to learn,” Ginsburg said. “Right now, too many of them are not really ready.”

Speed is important, but targeting funds to the right districts can be crucial

Advocates, including the groups EdTrust, Effective School Solutions, and the Center for American Progress, say the funds could be crucial for priorities that depart from conventional wisdom around boosting student safety by “hardening” schools with metal detectors and the ramped-up presence of police and security guards. Alternatives include mental health screenings for students, strengthening data collection to monitor for patterns of mental health concerns among students, and training adults in schools on mental health and violence prevention.

Despite the urgent needs, some experts say there are reasons to go slowly.

Rushing to create a grant program without a thoughtful process could leave out underresourced school districts that would most benefit from the funds but lack the administrative staff or technical expertise to apply for them, said Roby Chatterji, associate director of K-12 education at the Center for American Progress, a nonprofit think tank.

There’s also the question of how initiatives supported by the funds will continue when the money runs out. Districts are currently plagued with those kinds of questions as the unprecedented haul of COVID relief funds they received earlier in the pandemic starts to run out.

The Stronger Connections money doesn’t expire until 2026, leaving plenty of time for districts to be strategic, Chatterji said.

“It’s great when the federal government is promising to give some money. A lot of what states and districts have to forecast is, what happens when this runs out? Will we continue to match it with our own local tax revenue and state funding?” he said. “Often the answer is no.”

Why states have been slow to send funds to districts

The federal government waited three months from the bill’s passage to announce how much money each state and territory would get for distributing $972 million in Stronger Connections grant funds.

States were then expected to undergo a lengthy process, including time for the public to comment, to define the term “high-need schools” that get priority consideration for the grant money. Should the money be prioritized for high-poverty schools? Schools with high ratios of students to mental health professionals? Schools with high rates of chronic absenteeism, exclusionary discipline, bullying and harassment, violence, or substance use? Schools that recently experienced a natural disaster or traumatic incident?

On top of that, the federal government wanted states to develop their own guidelines for grant programs, including determining which expenses are allowable and whether any particular expenses should be prioritized. The federal government permitted the funds to be used for a long list of expenses including school-based mental health services, programs that support nutrition and well-being, personnel to handle crises and oversee suicide prevention initiatives, and school-wide initiatives to improve behavioral interventions and supports. But states had permission from the federal government to narrow the list of eligible expenses.

The federal government set a 90-day deadline for states to complete this work. If they didn’t meet that deadline, they were required to update the department on their progress.

Spokespeople for state education departments in Mississippi and New Hampshire told Education Week that all of this work caused delays in getting the programs running.

Sometimes the issue was capacity. New Mexico’s education agency, for instance, is “being methodical” and “staffing up” to ensure it has the capacity to execute the grant program, said Kelly Pearce, a spokesperson.

Some state legislatures bear responsibility for delays.

In Arkansas, lawmakers allocated $50 million in school safety funds before the federal grants were announced. The state wants to ensure that grants from the federal funds don’t duplicate state-funded efforts, said Kimberly Mundell, a spokesperson for the state education department.

Missouri’s state lawmakers haven’t authorized the education department to proceed with the grant program, said Mallory McGowin, spokesperson for the state education department. The state did supply schools with $20 million in school safety funds earlier this month, though the focus of that initiative was outfitting school buildings with high-tech locks and other security technology.

Heath Oates, superintendent of the rural El Dorado Springs district in Missouri, said students’ social-emotional needs are greater than ever in his district.

“Our legislature often chooses to work slowly, especially when federal strings are attached,” Oates said. “It is my hope that our state legislators are moving slowly in order to deliberate carefully and not playing politics while kids struggle.”

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