Education Funding

States Are Waffling Over Billions in K-12 Federal Relief. Schools Are Getting Antsy.

By Mark Lieberman — April 29, 2021 6 min read
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District leaders, state lawmakers, and student advocates have begun agitating for their urgently needed federal stimulus relief as some states have been especially slow in getting that money into the hands of school districts.

Schools in some states have already started spending money from recent federal spending packages passed to provide relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others know the amount they’re expected to get, but don’t yet have the dollars at their disposal.

Others still remain in the dark on how much they’ll receive, the requirements for getting that money, and when they’ll get it.

In Michigan, for instance, GOP lawmakers passed a bill this week requiring schools to offer 20 hours of in-person learning by May 10 in order to receive federal relief funds, the Michigan Advance reported. Gretchen Whitmer, the state’s Democratic governor, is likely to veto the bill, which prompted the state teachers’ union to publish an online tool breaking down the amount of money each school district will be unable to access if the GOP plan moves forward.

District leaders in Texas for weeks have been voicing their frustrations and lobbying state lawmakers for federal money they say they badly need as they prepare next year’s budgets. This Wednesday, the Texas governor’s office announced that it would make $11 billion in federal aid available to school districts immediately.

That news was a relief for superintendents after several agonizing weeks, said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators. Districts have been developing plans for summer school and other programs to address learning loss and mental health challenges, but without concrete assurance of a dollar amount, they haven’t been able to start executing on those plans, he said.

“You can’t ask a superintendent to say ‘We’re going to spend millions of dollars in summer school’ without knowing for sure that you’re going to have those funds flow through,” Brown said.

State and local education policymakers and observers are trying to walk a fine line between rushing to spend money on urgent priorities and taking the time to develop coherent long-term plans.

Schools have more than three years to use the latest round of federal money. Some initiatives will get underway immediately, but others may require time and more engagement with the community to take shape, said Terra Wallin, associate director for P-12 policy for the Education Trust.

“There is a level of meeting the immediate needs now and taking the time to plan out what the strategy looks like over the next four years,” Wallin said. “I don’t think you have to choose one over the other.”

A varied landscape from state to state

Tracking the flow of federal relief dollars from governments to school districts is turning out to be an enormously complex task. There’s no national database showing which states have or have not permitted districts to spend federal funds, and no easy way to determine which of the three sets of federal stimulus packages, or which combination of the three, has become available for districts to spend.

Federal Republicans have raised concerns several times during the pandemic that schools haven’t spent much of the federal relief they’ve received so far, and cited those concerns when arguing schools didn’t deserve additional aid. Education leaders have pushed back, pointing out that much of the money is going toward programs or initiatives, like payroll, with long-term expenses that haven’t yet shown up in data.

The confusion over the distribution of federal K-12 money in Texas isn’t over. The state still hasn’t sent school districts roughly $7 billion, which appears to be largely from the smaller federal stimulus package Congress passed in December.

The delay can be attributed in part to a provision in the law that requires the state to maintain funding for both K-12 and higher education at the same levels as recent years. The state would need to boost its higher education budget by $1.2 billion, though it’s applied for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to bypass that requirement.

The governor’s office said this week that districts’ questions about how much they can expect from that additional pot of money will be resolved by the end of next month.

The delay on that smaller amount won’t be as disruptive for districts’ planning, but it could make budgeting more complicated. Even though funds from the March federal package are arriving first, districts should pivot to using the December federal funds once they’re available, Brown said, because they expire sooner.

In Arizona, a state lawmaker earlier this month urged the state department of education to immediately send more than $70 million of available federal funds to school districts hit hardest by the pandemic. The agency has said it plans to direct the money toward statewide education needs rather than local districts’ budgets.

Meanwhile, Arizona districts are hurting—the Gilbert schools have already announced plans to lay off more than 150 teachers and other employees to account for declining student enrollment, and other nearby districts have also announced cuts, according to local media reports.

“The last thing we need is to have fewer teachers available to take care of our kids and possibly fewer counselors to take care of our kids at a time when our children need this emotional support more than ever,” Mitzi Epstein, a member of the Arizona House of Representatives, told the SanTan Sun.

An additional complication: In order to use the federal funds, schools in states like Ohio will be required to spend the money and get reimbursed later, which could be a challenge for districts with little cash on hand.

“We’re not getting a $93 million check to sit in our bank account,” Jenn Wagner, treasurer for the Cincinnati public schools, told the local news station WLWT5.

A wide array of challenges with short- and long-term solutions

The largely unprecedented burst of federal dollars, coming in three separate installments, each with different rules and deadlines, is trickling to schools during what is already a chaotic season, as districts race to finalize budget proposals and negotiate with state legislatures before their new fiscal year begins this summer.

Further complicating matters, the most recent federal stimulus package also included money for state and local governments, which could go toward K-12 schools, among other spending priorities.

The American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11, included $129 billion in direct aid for K-12 schools. The U.S. Department of Education released two-thirds of that money to state departments of education last month, and announced last week that states and school districts must submit detailed documentation of their budget and operational planning before receiving the last third.

Biden and Democrats in Congress pushed for this third and largest round of school aid to help schools return to normal in-person operations and recover from the challenges highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic—catching up on lost learning time, dealing with mental health challenges, distributing high-quality technology tools, and improving building infrastructure.

Schools have already begun the balancing act of addressing immediate needs and investing in programs that will yield dividends for years to come. Some, like the Newark district in New Jersey, are surveying local parents for ideas on how to make the money count for the long haul.

“We need to think about how we can save this money,” Newark Superintendent Roger León said this week. “When I say ‘save it,’ I mean, how can we utilize the money now and then see evidence of it later.”

Other schools have more timely considerations at hand. Now that Texas has assured a large chunk of money will be available, Brown said, districts can start contacting parents about summer school options, hiring teachers, organizing food service and transportation logistics, and deciding which school buildings will be the central hubs for summer programs.

“With about a month left of school, they are really going to have to act with urgency,” Brown said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2021 edition of Education Week as States Are Waffling Over Billions in K-12 Federal Relief. Schools Are Getting Antsy

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