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Education Funding

Nearly Half of School Finance Officials Report ‘Sufficient’ Federal COVID-19 Aid, For Now

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 05, 2021 5 min read
Illustration of a helping hand with dollar bill bridging economy gap during coronavirus pandemic, assisting business people to overcome financial difficulties.
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Just under half of local school district finance officials—45 percent—say they’ve received “sufficient” federal funding and support to help them address the coronavirus pandemic so far. But many of those administrators still worry about having enough money long-term to pay for things like learning recovery, rising payroll costs, and facility repairs.

The survey of hundreds of K-12 officials by the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) International also found that the two most popular uses of dollars from the CARES Act from March 2020 were purchasing personal protective equipment and similar supplies and improving education technology and broadband services. The CARES Act provided $13.2 billion for K-12 public education.

As for the second relief package enacted in December that provided $54 billion for public schools: While broadband and ed-tech continued to be a popular use, addressing student learning needs has become the most-often reported use or planned use.

Just over half the respondents estimated that their districts are getting between $500,000 and $5 million from the second, larger COVID-19 relief package for schools. By contrast, most of the respondents said their districts got less than $500,000 from the first relief deal.

For the upcoming school year, 76 percent of district officials reported plans to use that second K-12 relief package to address learning recovery (the most popular response), 65 percent reported plans to use it for technology and broadband, and 61 percent reported plans to use it on PPE, supplies, and training.

The ASBO survey provides some interesting information about how local school districts are using money from the two relief packages. Congress is considering a third round of relief for K-12 schools that will likely top $120 billion, although details will need to be worked out between the House and Senate before it’s sent to President Joe Biden for his signature.

The national teachers’ unions and other education groups have pushed hard for a third round of federal COVID-19 relief for education, after the first two relief deals provided roughly $67 billion in relief for K-12 public schools. And a majority of officials in ASBO’s survey—55 percent—say the relief enacted so far is not sufficient.

However, the survey indicates that a fair number of local school officials believe Congress has done enough for the time being.

To a certain extent, this may reflect that the pandemic’s financial toll on states might not be as dire as some predicted. A New York Times report found that while some states like Florida, Nevada, and Texas experienced major declines in state revenue last year compared to the same period in 2019, the decline in many other states is much smaller. And a significant share of states actually saw their tax revenues increase, the Times reported.

Separately, some GOP lawmakers and others have questioned whether schools should be getting another round of relief, as criticism persists about the pace at which some schools are resuming in-person classes.

As we noted previously, those officials who told ASBO they’ve gotten enough federal help for the time being didn’t all say they were totally at peace with the situation.

Roughly 31 percent of those who called that support from Washington “sufficient” for this school year and the last one said they still had concerns about their budgets for the upcoming school year and beyond. The ASBO summary of the survey results said this demonstrated major concerns about “significant unsustainable costs” in the future related to the pandemic.

Elements of the survey mean that the results should be treated with some caution.

  1. The survey includes responses from 578 school business officials from 40 states. The states with the highest response rate were Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
  2. We don’t know know exactly how much of a priority districts have put on different spending areas in the survey. In other words, if a district official spent $10,000 on PPE and $100,000 on learning recovery, the survey responses don’t reflect that difference.
  3. The survey provided responses and asked officials to select all that applied, but didn’t ask them to prioritize them when it comes to plans for using the money as opposed to actual uses.
  4. A relatively large share of school leaders said they were using the money to support “activities to maintain K-12 services.” That matches language in the federal relief legislation, but it’s not clearly defined either there or (naturally enough) the ASBO survey. In open-ended feedback received by the group, K-12 business officials did discuss using the aid to avoid furloughs, pay salaries, and keep staff on the payroll—each of which may or may not involve those “activities.”
  5. The ASBO survey does not provide a response rate.

In a statement about the survey, David Lewis, ASBO’s executive director, said that “more federal aid is still needed to help schools reopen and recover from the pandemic.”

Here are a few notable survey findings when it comes to how districts have used the March 2020 CARES Act money for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years:

  • Sixty-six percent of respondents reported spending or obligating the money on PPE, supplies, and training for 2019-20, and 73 percent of respondents reported this use for 2020-21.
  • Sixty-two percent of respondents reported spending the money on technology and broadband for 2019-20, and 72 percent reported this use for 2020-21.
  • There was a big jump between those two years for the share of respondents using the money on learning loss (23 percent to 45 percent), foreshadowing trends for the second round of relief mentioned earlier.

More than half the respondents, 64 percent, said that fewer than half their districts’ students qualified as disadvantaged students under the federal Title I program.

The rate at which schools have been using federal relief money has gotten a fair bit of scrutiny in the last several months. We wrote about that issue last year here.

There are a few other interesting points of data from the survey, including the demographic profile of the districts surveyed. And 83 percent reported an enrollment decline from 2019-20 to 2020-21; the remaining 17 percent reported an increase.

ASBO conducted the survey from Feb. 8-19.

Read the full ASBO survey results here.

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Nearly Half of School Finance Officials Report ‘Sufficient’ Federal COVID-19 Aid, For Now

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