These parachuted dollars come at a cost. The huge spending increases both the burgeoning national debt and a suffocating federal footprint on education. They also come with an additional black mark: Congress’ approach to handing out the money does not hold water. The spending strongly favors some school districts and neglects others.
The Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Assistance Fund (ESSER), which will provide most of the federal COVID-19 relief dollars to schools, has been funded in three installments. The combined $ 190 billion in ESSER funds (more than a quarter of all pre-pandemic revenue received by all public schools in a year) represents a disproportionate response to the pandemic. COVID-19 had a considerably smaller economic impact on regular school income sources than the Great Recession. Yet Washington is now sending about twice as much more dollars than it did to deal with the crisis of a decade ago.
Although ESSER funds can be spent over several years, they are in addition to the total revenues that have been increasing for a long time. In 2019, American schools received more than $ 15,000 per student from all sources. Now the K-12 education system is inundated with record levels of funding, with some district leaders wondering how they can prudently spend this new money. Meanwhile, many parents find it difficult to pay for the necessary educational alternatives.
In less than a year, Congress allocated three separate rounds of ESSER funds, all under the same basic formula used for Title I risk programs. While the Title I design has always meant that school districts have more low-income students tend to get more money, in some states the flow of the ESSER fund is very uneven.
Nowhere is the disparity clearer than in Michigan. With the exception of small outliers, one district will receive 300 times more ESSER money than another, as measured by the number of students currently enrolled. Very poor community schools in Flint will receive $ 49,000 per student, compared to $ 155 per student in wealthy East Grand Rapids. But neither the local wealth nor the needs of the students can fully explain the difference between the schools. Charter schools in Flint serve a similar demographic as the local district, but they get one-eighth of the district’s amount per student.
Four other Michigan districts raise at least $ 25,000 per student. That includes the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state’s largest, whose $ 1.25 billion ESSER revenue eclipses all others. City charters absorb about a quarter of the per student support the district receives.
Michigan’s numbers are the most striking. But insights from various other states that have released this data suggest a similar, if less dramatic, situation. In Arkansas, a tenfold gap between the lower and upper district, bringing in more than $ 21,000 per student in ESSER money. In Virginia, the Petersburg district receives nearly 40 times more than Falls Church, which is over 100 miles north on I-95. And in Washington state, local federal COVID19 relief collections range from around $ 140 to $ 20,000 per student.
In an unfortunate development, some school officials began to question the value of ESSER funds as a one-time influx of money. A Michigan superintendent recently said state lawmakers should provide additional help to offset federal dollars when they run out in a few years. The argument that this big funding boost can only work if it’s made permanent essentially raises expectations of future spending.
Parents and other taxpayers deserve better. Congress has guaranteed the lion’s share of COVID-19 relief funds by subscribing to existing school systems. But the best way for state leaders to ensure that future dollars are used efficiently is to allocate them to students, bringing relief directly to families who have been neglected.
Meanwhile, the K-12 system’s growing appetite for more resources increases the need for additional collateral. Local leaders should not be able to keep secrets in their spending plans for COVID-19 relief dollars. Yet a disturbing new report reveals that many districts in California are not fully disclosing how they intend to use the money.
Rather than hiding any plans for this additional funding, schools should keep the process open and listen to parent feedback. With some local agencies receiving large and unbalanced shares of relief dollars, it is the least they can do.
Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. Follow him on twitter @bendegrow.