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Education Funding

The Political Spotlight on Schools’ COVID Relief Money Isn’t Going Away

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 19, 2021 7 min read
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Educators and policymakers are finding themselves under the microscope on how they’re using billions of dollars in pandemic relief aid, and that could become an even bigger political issue in the months ahead.

The scrutiny from politicians, the media, advocacy groups, researchers, and others comes as individual school districts increasingly are the subject of attention on everything from pandemic relief to issues like critical race theory and equity-focused programs in schools. And it extends to Washington, where lawmakers recently pressed federal officials on the amount of aid and how helpful it is.

Questions about how schools are using the COVID aid money in particular—and whether they are spending it fast enough—date back to the early days of the CARES Act in early 2020. A few instances of districts using pandemic aid on sports facilities have drawn skeptical reactions. Questions about and calls for more transparency in general about pandemic K-12 aid have grown as time has gone on. California’s state auditor has called for more oversight of schools’ use of $24 billion in relief. And relatively high-profile decisions like switches to remote learning, even temporary ones that have community support during a surge in COVID cases, could attract skepticism focused on why current funding isn’t enough to keep children in classrooms.

In recent months, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has repeatedly stressed the importance of returning safely to in-person learning and how COVID funding supports such efforts.

Some lawmakers have already been harsh and blunt about how they view the COVID relief for education.

“The Democrats’ radical spending spree should not be seen as anything other than a frenzied attempt to score political points with teachers’ unions,” Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, told U.S. Department of Education officials during a Nov. 17 House education subcommittee hearing. “Democrats have shown little interest in how these funds are being used and if they’ve accomplished any of the attempted purposes.” (Owens is the subcommittee’s ranking member.)

Such scrutiny could intersect with new “Parents’ Bill of Rights” bills introduced by congressional Republicans, who in the wake of Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race are demanding that teachers and schools leaders be much more transparent about decisions concerning curriculum, library interests, and other matters, including budgets. And it could drive Capitol Hill hearings and other oversight activities if the GOP takes control of one or both chambers of Congress following the 2022 midterm elections.

How use of funds could prompt uncomfortable questions

After researching the potential impact of federal virus relief on COVID-related expenses in schools, Georgetown University Professor Nora Gordon said that if a district is struggling to find and hire substitute teachers and classes are interrupted as a result, for example, scrutiny could quickly follow as to whether pandemic money being spent elsewhere should have been redirected.

“If a district is not delivering services that would seem reasonable at any time or in response to COVID, and then it says they don’t have the money, people should be asking, ‘Oh, well, what are you spending the ESSER money on?’” she said.

But district leaders should aggressively assert the flexibility the law gives them when deciding how to use aid money for COVID mitigation and helping students recover academically and otherwise, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

“Every time I speak to superintendents, I am stressing for them, number one, the intended and inherent flexibility in the law” providing COVID aid, she said. Ellerson Ng added that, in general and within reason, “If it is not prohibited, it is allowed.”

In an exchange with Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten during the House subcommittee hearing—which also featured Republicans’ concerns about department grants for history education, and the Biden administration’s approach to transgender student rights—Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., pressed her about why people should be confident about the benefits of all the COVID aid. “How can parents know that COVID-relief funds have had a net positive impact on their children?” he asked at one point.

Marten pointed to the department’s website that features data on COVID-19 relief for K-12 as well as higher education. This and other monitoring of spending by districts “provides the clarity and transparency for everybody to be able to access that and to ensure that the dollars are being used in the intended manner,” Marten told lawmakers.

The sentiments from Owens, Banks, and others could drive extensive federal oversight of schools and relief money if, as many expect, Republicans take control of one or both chambers of Congress after the 2022 midterm elections.

Democrats also aren’t averse to raising the issue. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, told Marten he assumed that if the Education Department identified districts that were wasting COVID relief funds, it would tell the media about those districts.

“There is a plethora of resources for states and districts to know how to direct the funds in the ways intended,” Marten said.

Superintendents should think carefully about framing decisions in the context of students and not adult interests, Ellerson Ng said. For instance, if a school spends money on a new sports facility, she said, leaders should emphasize how using funding that way improves children’s physical and psychological well-being and helps build social connections for students after the pandemic’s negative effects on those issues. In addition, building more infrastructure for things like athletics can help schools socially distance students if the need arises, she noted.

“As an administrator, you have the responsibility to make the decision, but you also have the responsibility to communicate that decision” to school communities, Ellerson Ng said. “Even if they’re not bought in, help them understand.”

A surge of money that may not last or solve all problems

Some education advocates worry that schools’ failure to be consistently transparent and engage productively with parents and others about their responses to the pandemic—including their use of relief funding—has contributed to public concerns, and has already led to political consequences.

Emerging research about the issue in general includes just how much education and other child-focused programs are getting in pandemic relief; how unprecedented that spending is; and when it could start to tail off.

Legislation passed in response to the pandemic will increase spending on schools, nutrition, child care, and other programs benefiting children by $600 billion between 2020 and 2027, according to a study published Nov. 17 by the Urban Institute. That increase is more than annualized federal government spending on children before the pandemic, Urban Institute Senior Fellow Julia B. Isaacs and Research Fellow Cary wrote.

The Urban Institute report projects that pandemic spending on schools under the Education Stabilization Fund (which includes ESSER as well as other funding) will peak at $51 billion in 2022. Isaacs and Lou noted, however, that the $600 billion increase in spending on children is a small part of the $5 trillion in spending on the pandemic in federal relief bills.

The relief packages from Washington don’t mean all schools are (and will be) supersaturated with funding. Research about covering COVID costs from Gordon and University of California, Los Angeles Associate Professor Sarah Reber estimates that 85 percent of districts with low shares of students in poverty would face budget shortfalls of $200 per student over multiple years, even with pandemic relief. And there have been notable disparities between districts when it comes to pandemic relief, with some leaders reported that their districts have missed out entirely on some of the aid packages.

The surge of federal funding to education and other child-focused programs driven by the pandemic, as well as criticism and skepticism as to how it’s used, could soon grow beyond the enacted relief the Urban Institute studied.

For one thing, if the Build Back Better Act currently being considered in Congress is signed into law by President Joe Biden, billions of additional dollars are slated to flow to child care, preschool, child nutrition, and other programs benefiting school-age children over roughly the next decade.

More narrowly, House and Senate Democrats are mulling fiscal 2022 budget proposals that could more than double this year’s roughly $16.5 billion in Title I spending for disadvantaged students, which would provide a further boost to relatively high-poverty districts.

Lawmakers behind these proposals say the additional funding for Title I and other education programs will help mitigate the harm done by the pandemic to student’s academic achievement and well-being.

Exactly when lawmakers pass that budget, and whether such a major increase would persist beyond the upcoming year, remains to be seen.

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