Covid funding analysis finds California districts have spent little so far to address learning loss

Credit: Andrew Reed/EdSource

First graders at Lockeford Elementary in Lodi.

A year after Congress passed record funding for Covid relief, new analysis finds California school districts have so far spent little to deal with learning setbacks caused by the pandemic. This despite data that indicates that learning has slowed, especially among younger students, and that achievement gaps between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers have widened during distance learning in 2020-2021.

As Thomas Kane, faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, wrote in a recent article in The Atlantic, “The loss of achievement 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 school districts across the state have used a total of $40 billion in dedicated federal and state funding to help them coping with covid. It covered expense reports through March 31.

While the report clearly indicates how much money the districts spent collectively, it is less clear what they specifically spent it on. Partly credit Congress for that.

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

As a result, it’s unclear from the statewide data whether many districts directed early rounds of Covid funding toward learning loss strategies, or whether, consumed by staffing shortages, the omicron push last year, and student mental health needs, they have yet to succeed. a funding priority.

Congress requires all districts to file quarterly expense reports. By looking at these, school board association researchers were able to track the shift in priorities, from buying cleaning supplies and computer purchases in the initial phase of the pandemic, to testing Covid and educational support in 2021-22 after schools reopen, to more recent attention to mental health and, to some 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 nearly all of the first round of federal funding, which has a spending deadline of Feb. 1, 2023.

The school board association report said Congress intentionally included open categories in recognition that financial conditions and needs vary widely by state and district. Indeed, Covid has proven unpredictable over 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 board association. .

“Flexibility is a crucial feature of these spending envelopes, not a bug,” the report says. And he noted that especially small districts lack the staff to both make time-consuming contact with parents about their spending priorities, as required by Congress, and to regularly update spending for multiple sources of financing, often intertwined.

But the result is also a lack of transparency, said Vince Stewart, vice president of policy and programs at the nonprofit Children Now. “We got it; schools had to deal 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’s helping children. .

The only way to know for certain how the funding was used and who received the money would be to review itemized expense receipts from 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 conduct ad hoc audits of district spending. But in its own audit of state efforts, State Auditor Elaine Howle criticized the department for not doing more audits and for not scrutinizing spending more closely. The department audited less 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 with making that a priority.

Stewart also called on the department to do more. “There’s nothing stopping the state from saying we want more detail than the feds require,” he said. “Money is spent on categories, but the state might ask, ‘How do you spend on students?'”

“School districts are advised to go beyond the minimum reporting requirements to show money was well spent,” Flint said. “It’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 one-third. In total, this unprecedented multi-year crisis response is equivalent to about one-third of the state’s total funding this year for TK-12 education.

It all 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 federal relief cycles over the course of 12 months were called the Elementary and Secondary Schools 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 Education Emergency Relief Fund.

Congress used the Title I formula, tied to a district’s poverty rate, to distribute Covid aid, so the amount per student varied widely from several hundred dollars per student to more than $11,000. per student at Los Angeles Unified (go here to find what each district received).

Many superintendents acknowledged in the school board survey that they had struggled to spend all the Covid money. They reported that they could not find enough qualified candidates to hire; 91% of respondents said filling vacancies or new positions were moderate or very difficult barriers to using the money. And many employees who said they felt burned out from teaching during Covid turned down 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 rely on the combination of multiple funding rounds with subsequent spending deadlines to prolong hiring. The $7.9 billion Emergency Learning Recovery Fund in the 2022-23 state budget can be spent through 2027-28, for example.

The big price

The $15 billion authorized by Congress in 2021 through ESSER III is also known as the US bailout and was the largest 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.

As of March 31, school districts had spent only one-sixth of the $15 billion in federal Covid aid that Congress had authorized a year earlier. And they had spent only a tenth of the Congressional $3 billion designated to address learning setbacks caused by the pandemic. So far only 5% has been spent on tutoring, a priority of some parents and student advocates, and, starting this month, the Biden administration.

Some districts may have hoarded US bailout funding, which can be spent through January 31, 2025, and used Covid money with shorter timelines. That’s what Jessica Gunderson, the new co-executive director of the Partnership for Children and Youth, which champions summer and after-school programs, suspects is paying for the programs this summer.

School board association analysis found that districts had spent only 4% of learning loss funding on summer learning as of March 31. Still, Gunderson said she’s seen significantly more districts offering summer enrichment programs this year.

While some districts continue to offer only remedial action, others are approaching summer in creative ways, partnering with community groups for fun activities kids need after a stressful year. Some districts send kids to camps, like the University of the Pacific’s Summer High School Institute, which has 240 Lodi Unified students, or the STEM-focused Camp Galileewhich operates at school sites in the Bay Area.

Upcoming quarterly Covid spending reports may capture some of this activity — or not, depending on how accurately districts fill them out.

The school board association’s report is the first of three it plans to release. The second will report how districts spent $6.6 billion in approved Covid public funding in March 2021. The final report will be the results of a survey of approximately 200 superintendents and business officers. Data does not include charter school spending.

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