Keeping Learning Recovery Going When Federal Pandemic Funds Dry Up

Forte: Every district will feel the impact of the fiscal cliff, but the risks are too high for students if schools lose momentum.

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Education equity advocates are sounding the alarm at a crucial time for America’s public school system — but is anyone listening? There’s a fiscal cliff ahead as the Elementary and Secondary School Relief (ESSER) funds that helped schools across the country reopen during the pandemic are set to expire in just seven months. Is anyone bracing for the fall? For the sake of our students and our nation, policymakers and education leaders must heed the warnings of the potential crisis ahead.  

That was the message I delivered recently when I testified at a congressional hearing called to discuss how student learning has fared since the pandemic and how the nation can address the inequities that have been exacerbated because of COVID. 

I was glad to see bipartisan agreement that the country has an obligation to provide a high-quality education to help all children to overcome the devastating impact of learning loss created by the pandemic. However, far too many students — especially those of color, those with disabilities and those from low-income backgrounds — have suffered disproportionate impacts because of structural inequities in teaching quality, home broadband access, mental health supports and other external factors. 

Over the past three years, states and school districts have used ESSER funding to address the immediate needs of students, educators and staff.  But recovery will be ongoing. EdTrust’s research indicates two strategies have been most effective in accelerating learning: targeted intensive tutoring and expanded instructional time before or after school, during breaks or over the summer. Education and policy experts across the political spectrum agree on these solutions. In addition, strong, positive relationships with teachers and school staff in a culturally affirming environment can dramatically enhance students’ motivation, academic engagement and social skills.   

Leaders should continue evidence-based solutions that support students and parents and create affirming school environments. Targeted intensive tutoring programs, like those in Tennessee and Virginia, have the potential to double the progress students typically make in a year. Expanding learning time programs, like Massachusetts Acceleration Academies, which provided intensive tutoring during school breaks, have been shown to increase average student test scores by 12 points. And research on programs that foster strong relationships between students and adults has found they can increase students’ grade-point averages. Other states and districts invested funds in addressing chronic absenteeism or supporting students’ mental health, which was severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These are great uses of ESSER funds. Data suggests the average district has relied on ESSER funding to support roughly 8% of its budget, with about half of ESSER funds being used to pay for labor expenses. The reality is that all effective interventions require skilled, supportive and caring teachers who research shows are the biggest in-school factor for student success.   

Unfortunately, as ESSER funds sunset, many district administrators are considering whether they will have to close schools, lay off teachers and cut successful programs and supports.

This will be hardest on Title I school districts, whose budgets could be slashed by an average of $1,200 per student. Take Arkansas, where 84% of all ESSER funds have been exhausted, 11% of education revenue was supplied by ESSER funds and the growth rate of incoming revenue slowed by 6% (the third-highest of any state from Fiscal Year 2023 to 2024). These financial circumstances add up to a huge challenge as leaders work to avoid destructive cuts. States like South Carolina and Oklahoma are in similar situations.   

To mitigate these harmful cuts, state legislatures and education leaders should leverage existing funding streams beyond 2024 to ensure that any remaining dollars are put toward evidence-based approaches to academic and social-emotional recovery. Amid a youth mental health crisis, there should also be a focus on expanding funding for whole-child supports, including for school counselors, psychologists and  social workers — especially in high-need districts and schools — and increased efforts to recruit a diverse workforce of educators and staff who reflect the communities they serve.   

During my testimony, I also urged Congress to continue to support states and districts by increasing funding for Title I-A grants, which provide additional money for students from low-income backgrounds,  and for Title II, which pays to help recruit and retain teachers, offer professional development and reduce class sizes. Federal leaders should also allow flexibility so schools can spend these funds in strategic ways in upcoming years.While the impact of the fiscal cliff will vary from district to district, every school will likely be affected. This could result in a huge step backward for states and districts that have been effective at assisting vulnerable student populations. The risks are too high for students if schools lose momentum. Federal, state and district leaders must take steps now to ensure that all students — especially those who need the most support — can obtain an education that equips them for future success.       

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