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Analysis Of COVID Funding Reveals California Districts Have Spent Little So Far To Address Learning Loss

First grade students in a classroom.
First grade students at Lockeford Elementary in Lodi.
(Andrew Reed
Courtesy of EdSource )
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One year after Congress passed record funding in COVID relief, a new analysis reveals that California school districts so far have spent little of it on efforts to address learning setbacks caused by the pandemic. This despite data that indicates that learning slowed, especially among the youngest students, and gaps in achievement between Black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers widened during distance learning in 2020-21.

As Thomas Kane, the faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, wrote in a recent article in The Atlantic, “The achievement loss is far greater than most educators and parents seem to realize.”

The analysis by the California School Boards Association, released earlier this month, represents the first comprehensive look at how the state’s school districts have used a total of $40 billion in federal and state funding dedicated to helping them cope with COVID. It covered reports for spending through March 31.

While the report clearly lays out how much money districts collectively have spent, it’s less clear on what they specifically spent it on. In part, credit Congress for that.

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The spending categories that Congress set are broad and include the catch-all wording “other evidence-based interventions” for the learning loss money and “other activities necessary to maintain operations” for all other rounds of funding. Most districts appear to have listed most of the money they spent in that all-but-the-kitchen-sink category, which could include raises and bonuses to retain staff.

As a result, it’s unclear from the statewide data whether many districts directed earlier rounds of COVID funding to learning loss strategies, or whether, consumed by staff shortages, the omicron surge last year and students’ mental health needs, they have yet to make it a funding priority.

Congress requires all districts to file quarterly spending reports. Poring over those, school boards association researchers were able to track the shift in priorities, from buying cleaning supplies and computer purchases in the pandemic’s initial phase, to COVID testing and instructional support in 2021-22 after schools reopened, to more recent attention to mental health and, to an extent, learning loss.

The analysis reveals whether districts are on track to meet spending deadlines. For the most part, they are; 89% of districts have spent almost all of the first round of federal funding, whose spending deadline is Feb. 1, 2023.

The school boards association report said that Congress intentionally included open-ended categories in recognition that financial conditions and needs greatly varied among states and districts. Indeed, COVID proved unpredictable during the past two years, with sudden surges of the omicron and delta variants forcing districts to alter their spending plans, said Troy Flint, spokesperson for the school boards association.

“Flexibility is a crucial feature of these spending packages, not a bug,” the report said. And it noted that especially small districts don’t have the staff to do both time-consuming outreach to parents for their spending priorities, as required by Congress, and to regularly update spending for multiple, often intertwined, funding sources.

But the result is also a lack of transparency, said Vince Stewart, vice president for policy and programs at the advocacy nonprofit Children Now. “We get it; schools have been dealing with a lot, and there was a concern to minimize additional reporting. But with billions and billions of dollars, we should be able to show how it is helping kids.”

The only way to know for certain how funding was used and who received the money would be to examine itemized spending receipts of each district and charter school, an undue burden for interested members of the public.

The California Department of Education is required to monitor federal spending and to do spot audits of districts’ spending. But in her own audit of the state’s effort, State Auditor Elaine Howle criticized the department for not doing more audits and for not examining spending more closely. The department audited fewer than 1% of districts and charter schools in 2020-21. Howle called on the department to investigate districts that categorize the bulk of spending as “other activities,” but the department, in its response, disagreed that should become a priority.

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Stewart also called on the department to do more. “There’s nothing to stop the state from saying we want more details than the federal government requires,” he said. “Money is being spent within the categories, but the state could ask, ‘How is what are you spending on benefiting students?’”

“It’s advisable for school districts to go beyond the minimum reporting requirements to show that the money was spent wisely,” Flint said. “That’s part of good community engagement.”

Three rounds of federal funding

The federal government funded two-thirds of California’s K-12 COVID aid and the state about a third. Altogether, this unprecedented multiyear crisis response equals about a third of total state funding this year for TK-12 education.

It started with $1.6 billion that Congress appropriated in March 2020; the latest is $7.9 billion that the Legislature approved last month as part of the state budget for 2022-23. The three primary rounds of federal relief over the course of 12 months were called the Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund or ESSER I, II and III. Congress also allocated two rounds of discretionary funding to governors — $700 million to California — through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund.

Congress used the Title I formula, tied to a district’s poverty rate, to distribute COVID relief, so the amount per student varied widely from several hundred dollars per student to more than $11,000 per student in Los Angeles Unified (go here to look up what every district received).

Many superintendents acknowledged in the school boards’ survey that they have had difficulty spending all the COVID money. They reported that they could not find enough qualified candidates to hire; 91% of those surveyed said filling vacant or new positions were moderately or very challenging barriers to using the money. And many employees who said they felt burned out from teaching during COVID declined offers to work longer days or summer programs, they said.

Superintendents also cited the challenges of one-time funding, which limits districts’ ability to hire permanent staff, with the possibility of layoffs a few years later when funding ends. But some superintendents are rethinking their strategy now that they can count on blending multiple rounds of funding with later spending deadlines to extend hires. The $7.9 billion Learning Recovery Emergency Fund in the 2022-23 state budget can be spent through 2027-28, for example.

The big prize

The $15 billion authorized by Congress in 2021 through ESSER III is also known as the American Rescue Plan and was the single biggest infusion of COVID relief. Districts must commit to spending 20% of that total — $3 billion — to address learning loss. Permitted uses are broad: mental health supports, social and emotional learning, purposes associated with community schools, summer enrichment learning and tutoring.

By March 31, school districts had spent only a sixth of the $15 billion in federal COVID relief that Congress authorized a year earlier. And they had spent but a 10th of the $3 billion Congress designated to address setbacks in learning caused by the pandemic. So far, only 5% had been spent on tutoring, a priority of some parents and student advocates, and, as of this month, the Biden administration.

Some districts may have stockpiled the American Rescue Plan funding, which can be spent through Jan. 31, 2025, and used COVID money with earlier deadlines. That’s what Jessica Gunderson, the new co-chief executive officer of the Partnership for Children and Youth, which advocates for summer and after-school programs, suspects is paying for programs this summer.

The school boards association’s analysis found that districts had spent only 4% of learning loss funding on summer learning as of March 31. Yet Gunderson said she has seen noticeably more districts offering summer enrichment programs this year.

While some districts continue to offer only remediation, more are approaching summer creatively, through partnerships with community groups for fun activities that kids need following a stressful year. Some districts are sending kids to camps, like the University of the Pacific’s Summer High School Institute, which 240 Lodi Unified students are attending, or the STEM-focused Camp Galileo, which operates at school sites in the Bay Area.

The next quarterly COVID spending reports may capture some of this activity — or not, depending on how precisely districts fill them out.

The school boards association’s report is the first of three it plans to release. The second will report how districts have spent $6.6 billion in state COVID funding approved in March 2021. The final report will be the results of a survey of about 200 superintendents and business officers. The data does not include spending of charter schools.

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