The U.S. Congress approved three separate COVID relief packages that each included significant outlays for K-12 education. In March 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, provided an initial jolt of fiscal relief to the nation’s public schools. Federal policymakers gave broad flexibility to school districts on how the relief funds could be used. The U.S. Department of Education also waived the long-standing requirement that states conduct standardized testing to be eligible for federal aid.
As part of the CARES Act, Congress provided the state of Michigan $3.08 billion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund for a variety of expenditures deemed necessary as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency. The Michigan Legislature provided districts with an extra $256 million from the CRF that amounted to $175 per pupil.[*]
On top of that, Michigan public schools received four streams of supplementary federal funding through the CARES Act, as follows:
- Districts and charter schools across the state received shares of $350.5 million through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, or ESSER. These dollars were distributed according to the Title I federal funding formula, which provides schools with funding based on how many low-income students they enroll. Historically larger school districts with the most low-income students receive the most money under this formula.
- The Michigan Department of Education determined how some money from the CARES Act was spent, using discretion granted to it by the law. MDE issued an additional $37.4 million in ESSER grants to 328 districts and charter schools. Priority was given to schools that serve “highly disadvantaged student populations,” defined at those student populations where more than 85% are low-income or more than 20% have special needs or more than 10% are English language learners.
- The CARES Act designated another funding stream for emergency assistance to K-12 and higher education entities, with discretion given to a state’s chief executive to determine how it would be allocated. A total of $89.4 million was devoted to the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer directed $60 million to local districts and charter schools that have more than 50% of their students come from low-income households.
- The Legislature appropriated an additional $18 million to all districts and charter schools on an equal per-pupil basis from the CRF detailed above. The funds were made available for schools to help students catch up academically through benchmark testing and instruction, or for general health and safety purposes.
From these four sources, Michigan public schools collected a combined $466 million, an average of $322 per student. The amount of CARES-related revenues received varied widely by district, however, as a result of the different formulas used to parcel out funds. Excluding tiny outlying districts, per-pupil allocations ranged from $12 at the Old Mission Peninsula School and Livingston Classical Academy charter schools to $3,180 per student at Flint Community Schools. Adding in the $256 million CRF school aid contribution extra raises the CARES Act supplemental total to $721.6 million.
According to the CARES Act, local districts must use the first three pots of funds described above by September 2022. The $18 million of CRF dollars allocated by the Legislature had to be spent by Dec. 30, 2020. Through November 2020, Michigan agencies reported spending only one-eighth, or $48.8 million, of the nearly $390 million in ESSER funds appropriated for COVID relief, and only $2.2 million of the GEER funding had been spent. Comparable data for the use of CRF dollars are not available. But somewhere between $397 million and $410 million of Michigan’s CARES Act education relief remained unspent more than six months after Congress authorized the money.
Greater detail is available from the $40.3 million in CARES Act funding that districts reported spending through June 30, 2020. Over 60% of these relief funds went to employee salaries and benefits. About one-eighth of the spending went to nonpayroll expenses in elementary-through-high school basic instructional programs. Lesser amounts went for building maintenance (6.7%); technology for distance learning or other instruction (4.8%); food services (3.5%); and information technology systems (2.7%).
This federal aid appears to have had little impact on whether districts were able to offer in-person instruction during the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. Among conventional school districts, the ones receiving the most federal aid were also districts more likely not to offer in-person instruction. Ninety-eight of Michigan’s 537 districts, serving nearly one-third of district students, provided only remote instruction in January. Those remote-only districts received 58% of CARES Act funding sent to conventional school districts. On average, districts that offered some form of in-person instruction received about one-third as much of this federal aid funding per pupil as districts where classrooms remained closed.
[*]Technically, the Legislature allocated $512 million, or $350 per pupil, but simultaneously reduced the state aid payment to school districts by $175 per pupil, resulting in a net effect of a $175 per pupil increase for districts. Jacqueline Mullen, Perry Zielak and Samuel Christensen, “Fiscal Brief: CARES Act Education-Related Allocations” (Michigan House Fiscal Agency, Nov. 25, 2020), https://perma.cc/WQ5U-C2TL.