Student recovery from the pandemic will come with a huge price—$700 billion, a new study finds—and, so far, federal COVID-relief aid isn’t covering it.
Researchers Kenneth Shores and Matthew Steinberg set out to examine the magnitude of federal aid, how the government is distributing it, and how it’s being spent. Their study, published Oct. 11 in Educational Researcher, the American Educational Research Association’s journal, says schools would need around $500 billion more than the $190 billion allocated through ESSER and the American Rescue Plan to fully recover from the pandemic’s academic damage.
It’s no secret that students suffered during the pandemic. National test scores show that student math and reading achievement experienced the largest drops in decades, and teachers have noticed increased behavioral and mental issues among students.
In order to quantify that, the researchers first looked at the magnitude of learning loss by comparing students’ current achievement to where they would have been had the pandemic not happened. Then they used averages of the annual cost it takes to increase student achievement to determine how much it would cost to get students back to where they would have been had the pandemic not happened.
“Despite ESSER funds being very generous in a historical sense, they’re likely inadequate given the magnitude of loss that took place during COVID,” said Shores, an educational policy professor at the University of Delaware. ESSER, the federal school COVID aid approved by Congress early in the pandemic, has allowed school districts to navigate the immediate impacts of the pandemic by providing funding for COVID-19 safety supplies, air quality improvement, and strategies to minimize learning loss.
Shores and Steinberg compared the federal pandemic aid with the federal response during the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009. During that time, Congress sent $50 billion to state education systems through a stabilization fund to help with the immediate impact of the recession, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The funding fell short of the $223 billion schools lost in revenue during that period.
Although the pandemic relief aid is much more generous in scope, Shores and Steinberg believe the federal government has repeated some of its missteps taken during the Great Recession, including a lack of transparency over how money is being spent and the use of inequitable funding formulas.
Study emphasizes focus on student learning and transparency
Shores and Steinberg don’t imagine their study will lead to Congress suddenly deciding to increase school aid by $500 billion; that would be unprecedented. But the researchers do think the study shows that federal policymakers and district and school leaders should prioritize funds to support student learning.
Districts have until September 2024 to determine how they’ll spend their portion of the $130 billion that came from the American Rescue Plan, but they can take until December of that year to spend it. AASA, the School Superintendents Association, has called on the federal government to extend that deadline so schools can have more flexibility to meet challenges.
Shores and Steinberg said they support an extended deadline if the money is used to support learning loss instead of funding capital projects that wouldn’t improve school learning environments.
“What we’re really trying to hit the hammer on is that we still have a lot of ability to put money in particular places,” Shores said. “If district leaders are under the impression that kids are doing fine, they haven’t lost [learning], or they’re awash with funds … they might not realize the urgency of using these funds for remediation.”
The study also calls on policymakers to require more transparency from school and district leaders on how they’re spending the funds. During the Great Recession, it was hard to know if federal aid actually accomplished its goals in helping schools recover, said Steinberg, who is an education and public policy professor at George Mason University in Virginia.
This time around, federal monitoring of how schools are spending funds isn’t much better, he said. The lack of transparency on how the funds are being spent leads to an accountability issue as well as a scientific and research problem, he said. The study is not the first to point to concerns about the lack of transparency. The Government Accountability Office called for better monitoring of how ESSER funds are being spent in an April report on COVID-19 aid.
“If we don’t know how this money is being used, we can’t say anything about whether some uses are more productive than others,” Steinberg said.
Traditional practices lead to inequitable distribution of money
Schools with students who experienced the highest learning loss were unlikely to receive an equitable share of COVID-19 aid, the study found.
As with its allocation of ARRA, the Great Recession funding, the U.S. Department of Education distributed the COVID relief funds using Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which aims to distribute funds to schools with the greatest need. But Title I often favors states that spend more money on education, resulting in communities with similar poverty levels in different states receiving different amounts of funding, Shores said.
Communities of color, who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, also tend to suffer from inequitable distribution through Title I, Shores said. A community that’s largely Black in one state might receive significantly more money than a community with similar demographics in another state because of how Title I is allocated, he said.
“There’s this kind of convenience of using an existing funding rule,” Shores said. “Our feeling is that they’re just relying on this rule ... because it’s simple, but they’re not really thinking about how the allocation is actually going to manifest.”
Shores and Steinberg suggest that the Education Department and state agencies generate more measures of student achievement during times of crisis like the pandemic so that funding allocations can be changed as it becomes clear where the money is needed most.
Policymakers should be “thinking more about a dynamic distribution of federal aid over a period of time as opposed to block-granting it at the front end,” Steinberg said.
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Schools Need Billions More to Make Up for Lost Learning Time, Researchers Argue