The Stakes Are Only Getting Higher for Pandemic School Aid Spending

Roza: What districts need to do to make sure the funds benefit students — and some that are getting it right

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This essay originally appeared on the Forbes blog.

Congress gave school districts roughly four years to spend a monumental $190 billion in federal ESSER relief aid. Most districts underspent at the front end, leaving the bulk of the cash for the final two years of the aid term that expires in September 2024.

Now, with 20 months remaining, our analysis shows that ESSER spending is indeed in overdrive, with monthly spending double what it was a year ago.

The reaction in some quarters? Mission accomplished: Districts have finally reached a pace that will spend down the funds by the deadline.

But that response misses the fundamental concerns that emerged in the early months of slow relief fund spending — concerns that are still at issue for students and school systems today.

There was never a worry that the money wouldn’t get spent down

The pace of spending matters — but not for the reason many seem to think it does. Those who closely watch school finance know that districts would never leave this flexible money unspent. When faced with a hard spending deadline, it is common for districts to shift expenses normally charged to one fund account over to the one expiring. In the end, even without the budget juggling, this money is so flexible that a district could simply cut checks to its staff in the name of a retention bonus. Voila, money spent.

Rather, the concern with slower spending up front was, and has always been: First, is the money being deployed in a way that gets students back on track? And second, are leaders planning ahead so the district isn’t derailed by a fiscal cliff in 2024?

Those financial pressures still exist. In fact, they’re even more intense. Slow spending early on means districts are now deploying over $5 billion per month in what amounts to a gusher of relief funds. Meanwhile, students are still far behind where they should be, especially in math, and chronic absenteeism is making it hard to catch them up.

Kids need the system to work smarter, nimbler and faster

Recovery work over the next 20 months will be both harder to pull off and higher-stakes. Districts have left themselves little time for onboarding new hires, tweaking programs to ensure they’re working and changing course when they aren’t. And if the chosen interventions don’t do enough to help students, there’s precious little time for a do-over.

This means asking districts to work differently, adapt to their current circumstances and quickly meet the needs of their students. We know it’s possible because some, in fact, have.

San Antonio used pandemic relief aid to launch recovery programs for students nearly two years ago. Similarly, Atlanta moved at warp speed to add more learning time. By summer 2021, Hawaii’s statewide district was offering a free summer program for incoming kindergartners to adapt to school after missing preschool and many social interactions. In contrast, in many other districts, students were left waiting a year and a half for systems to roll out help.

Sure, those districts where spending got a slower start weren’t violating any rules by backloading spending. But as the aid clock runs down, we need to focus not on what is allowed, but on what investments are showing progress for students. District and school leaders must tap data, map and measure progress, and pivot on a dime to switch gears if an investment isn’t impacting learning.

Districts need to plan now to manage the fiscal cliff and protect students

That higher spending in the final months makes for a deeper spending cut come the 2024-25 school year. Typically, when districts make cuts this big in a single year, kids pay the price.

Districts need to plan now so students don’t face chaos at the start of the 2024 school year with classrooms and teachers shuffled, programs abruptly dropped, staff demoralized and leaders focusing on nothing but budget woes. Past experience tells us that deep cuts are often inequitable and impact the neediest students the hardest.

First and foremost, districts must forecast their finances without federal relief aid. They should be transparent with staff and the community about the financial implications coming their way.

And they must scour budgets now for any opportunity to lower ongoing costs, like right-sizing the budget for dwindling enrollment (fewer students equals less revenue), reining in escalating benefits costs or phasing out ineffective programs. Where new investments are being made, that means structuring them as non-recurring commitments (e.g., using one-time bonuses or contract labor).

No margin for error as the aid clock ticks

The bigger goal was always to convert the relief funds into real value for students. We need our systems to roll up their sleeves and adopt a now-or-never mindset to meet the needs of kids sitting in classrooms today.

The stakes are high for future students, too. If lawmakers in Congress and statehouses don’t see clear benefit from the historic $190 billion in federal pandemic spending, getting more money for education going forward could be a tough sell.

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