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State's schools slow to use federal pandemic aid

Spending of Rescue Plan money varies in Arkansas by Democrat-Gazette staff and wire reports | October 25, 2022 at 5:12 a.m.
A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

The American Rescue Plan infused campuses with $122 billion to reopen buildings, address mental health needs and help students who had fallen behind academically. Despite having access to the dollars, school systems throughout the country reported spending less than 15% of the federal funding, known as ESSER III, the most recent installment of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, during the 2021-22 school year, according to a Washington Post analysis of data collected by Edunomics, an education finance group at Georgetown University.

The spending rates varied considerably between states, and even among school districts within a state. But the trend of a slow rollout was especially apparent in some of the school districts that have incurred the steepest learning losses in English and math, according to the data. About half of the 211 districts the Post examined, where Edunomics estimates students are the furthest behind, spent 5% percent or less of their ESSER III money last school year, the data shows.

Arkansas education was allocated $1.77 billion in the three rounds of special federal funding in 2020 and 2021 for covid-19 pandemic relief, the largest being $1.13 billion in the third round, American Rescue Plan money.

The Arkansas Department of Education's Data Center dashboard shows that the state's school systems have expended 57.5% of the three rounds of money, or $1.02 billion, leaving a balance of $753.53 million.

The state's allocation of just the American Rescue Plan money -- the third and largest round of federal money -- was $1.13 billion, of which 39.02% has been spent, or $440.39 million, leaving a balance of $688.32 million to be spent by September 2024. The first two rounds of special federal funding have earlier expiration dates.

The Arkansas dashboard shows the allocations, expenditures and the remaining balances for the individual school districts.

In regard to the American Rescue Plan money, Springdale, the state's largest school district in terms of enrollment, was allocated $40.3 million, has spent almost $6.4 million, or almost 16%, and has $33.9 million remaining, according to the state data site.

The Little Rock School District, the second-largest district in the state and the recipient of the greatest amount of special federal funding, has been allocated $64,666,017 in the third-round, American Rescue plan money. The capital city district has spent $25,649,685.91, or 39.66%, according to the state dashboard. That leaves $39,016,331.16 to be spent by September 2024.

The Little Rock district frequently makes proposals to the School Board on uses of the federal funding.

Earlier this month, for example, the Little Rock board approved a payment of a $5,000 employee retention incentive for teachers to be paid over two fiscal years with the federal funding. A similar incentive is in the works for the district's classified staff.

As another example, the Little Rock district leadership has raised the possibility to the board of employing as many as five different companies to provide tutoring services to students -- to be paid for with the federal funding.

District-by -district information on the allocations and spending of all three rounds of federal covid-19 funding in Arkansas is available on the state Department of Education's website at this link: https://esser-insight.ade.arkansas.gov

The money was not spent for a variety of reasons -- including delayed access to funds, a nationwide educator shortage that has made it hard to fill new positions, and a desire to make the money last, according to interviews with school officials and education experts in six states. ESSER III expires in September 2024, well after two earlier rounds of relief funding dry up, and school leaders say they want to stretch it as long as possible. But while the money sat, millions of students continued to struggle in core subjects, the consequences of which might not be known for years.

School district leaders, however, insist they are making progress -- particularly this school year as they plan to dip deeper into the remaining money. In many cases districts are still spending earlier waves of federal funding, a total of $67.5 billion released during the Trump administration that helped schools pivot to virtual learning and retrofit buildings to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Districts also explain the slow rate of spending by pointing to staffing shortages and supply chain disruptions that have made it difficult to fulfill their plans, as well as bureaucratic hurdles and reporting lags.

The state education agency in Maryland, for example, reports that Baltimore has not spent any of its relief dollars. Kimberly Hoffman, executive director of data monitoring and compliance for the school district of more than 77,000 children, said 14 percent of the grant has now been spent.

"We didn't even have approval from the state to start spending it until October 2021," Hoffman said. "A lot of our planning on using that third pot of ESSER funds is really what's going to happen this year in the '22-23 school year and next year, in 2023-24."

Using factors including test scores, family poverty data and the number of weeks students spent in remote learning, Edunomics estimates that children in Baltimore have lost an average of 18 weeks of learning in math and 15 weeks in reading. Remedying that could total $177.8 million in tutoring costs -- 40 percent of the city's ESSER III allotment -- researchers estimate.

Hoffman said roughly half of Baltimore's $443 million award is slated to address learning loss, much of which will take the form of tutoring as the district expands programs that started before the pandemic. In the months after ESSER III was announced, officials created a spending plan that included $39 million to pay teachers to tutor over the summer and $57 million to hire outside help for summer learning programs. That spending started this year and will continue over the summers of 2023 and 2024.

Millions more will be poured into one-on-one instruction, online tutoring and after-school learning programs -- including $9 million to bring in outside organizations to tutor students in 100 schools over two years, according to the district.

Baltimore's budget for the federal funding also includes more opportunities for students who failed courses to regain credits, as well as money to hire bus drivers, purchase WiFi hotspots for families and address long-neglected infrastructure needs -- from bathroom renovations to air-conditioning installations.

Schools have been given wide latitude in determining how to use the money, though at least 20 percent must be spent to address learning loss. Schools have reported purchasing new curricula, furniture and school supplies. At least 31 of the 100 largest school districts in the country are paying teachers bonuses, according to Future-Ed, another Georgetown education research group.

Some districts have shied away from purchases that can't be sustained once the money runs dry, such as new positions or salary increases, although dozens have reported doing so anyway. In North Carolina, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County school district said it would use $5.8 million to hire about 400 "guest teachers," whose positions are set to expire at the same time as the funding.

But most districts are eager to reverse the academic damage caused by the pandemic. The influx of federal dollars presents an opportunity to give unprecedented support to "kids who weren't getting the educational opportunities they needed before the pandemic," including children from low-income families, English language learners and students with special education needs, said Segun Eubanks, a professor and director of the University of Maryland's Center for Education Innovation and Improvement.

In the nation's capital, Edunomics estimates that students in the public school system are 20 weeks behind in math and 12 weeks behind in reading, which could cost more than $116 million to reverse. The district has reported spending less than 3 percent of its nearly $195 million allotment, according to the District's state superintendent of education. The city's charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated by nonprofit organizations called local education agencies, were awarded about $109 million.

In many cases, a child's academic standing can be traced to whether consistent internet access was available at home, said Eric Teutsch, a high school Spanish teacher in Youngstown, Ohio. Schools recorded attendance issues throughout the pandemic as children struggled to get online, and when they came back to the classroom "they were behind academically and socially," Teutsch said. Edunomics estimates it will cost $12.6 million to catch kids up who are, on average, 20 weeks behind in math and 16 weeks behind in reading.

Pinpointing the exact amount of learning loss incurred through the pandemic is tricky, and districts have different ways of measuring progress. But it is widely understood that schools are contending with a crisis.

Tennessee's state department of education is awarding extra state funding to districts and charter schools that spend half of their ESSER III award on academics and participate in a three-year tutoring program. In D.C., officials are pouring $40 million into frequent, small-group tutoring, with plans to provide services to more than 8,000 children over the next two academic years. This type of tutoring, often called "high-dosage," is among the best methods to accelerate learning, research indicates.

Consistency and continuity are also needed for an effective tutoring regime. But spending federal dollars has been challenging in the absence of qualified people who can make the commitment, said Jonathan Travers, a partner at Education Resource Strategies. The Massachusetts-based nonprofit helps school districts determine how best to use their resources.

The case has been the same with other staff positions -- from teachers to bus drivers to mental health professionals. Districts set out last year to hire counselors to help children cope with the emotional fallout of spending months at home, around sick relatives or in neighborhoods beset by surging violent crime. Morgan County Schools, a rural district of about 2,100 students in West Virginia, is contending not only with the pandemic but an opioid epidemic. Officials planned to hire a school psychologist, a behavior support specialist and a social worker.

Education experts also warn the data available about ESSER III use do not fully capture what is happening in schools. The figure that gets reported -- whether it's zero, 5 or 31 percent of funding spent -- reflects only how much money a district has requested from the state. School districts are not sitting on those dollars, they say, but rather tapping into local funds and getting reimbursed later.

"That's one of the reasons there's a difference between the budget and the plan to utilize funds versus actually pulling the money down, receiving it in your bank account and using it to pay someone," said Dean Zajic, assistant director of special education and title services for the Kansas State Department of Education.

In Baltimore, Zabrina Harris, a middle school special educator, said she is proud of how her district has addressed education deficits. Although her students are behind, they are still making progress, she said.

But she also understands the reality. Children in the city -- for myriad reasons, from poverty to exposure to violence -- have long trailed their peers across the state. In districts like that, it may take more than one-time federal relief to reverse years of underinvestment.

"They may never meet certain standards," Harris said. "But will they be readers and writers and thinkers? Yes, they will. I have faith in that."

Information for this article was contributed by Lauren Lumpkin and Sahana Jayaraman of The Washington Post and by Cynthia Howell of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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