An abundance of extra COVID cash doesn’t guarantee schools will set the right priorities. Even when they focus on helping students make up for lost time learning, districts may not adopt effective approaches.
In 2020 and 2021, the federal government approved a combined total of $6 billion in additional K-12 funding in response to the pandemic. Sizable increases in state aid have ensured record funding to Michigan schools. Yet as of April, about 80% of the extra dollars Congress kicked in remain on the table. The slow rollout follows a national trend.
How are districts using the money? Piecing together a clear, complete picture is difficult, based on the way data is collected and reported. Examples of questionable spending have been uncovered in some of the most heavily funded districts. Flint, which is taking in over $50,000 per student in COVID relief, doled out $22,500 bonuses to each employee.
The Michigan Department of Education oversees most of the state’s COVID relief money. Districts have a great deal of latitude over how they spend their Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) allocation. They file for reimbursements from the department based on the spending plans they have shared for approval.
Each budget item in district plans falls under one of 21 different allowable spending uses. Those uses fall broadly under five different categories: academic interventions; COVID remediation; nutrition, mental health, and family support; capital projects; and other. Through April 15, the miscellaneous category makes up 39% of planned expenses, or nearly $1.4 billion.
Further breakdowns show that charter schools aim to spend a greater share on academic interventions than conventional districts, and somewhat less on miscellaneous and capital projects. Still, there’s a great deal of variety in these local financial decisions.
Even if districts direct their promised COVID relief to similar uses, that doesn’t guarantee equivalent outcomes. A recent Chalkbeat article highlights two school systems – one district and one charter – that are providing students with tutoring. Ecorse Public Schools and Ypsilanti’s East Arbor Charter Academy report positive results for students, but do not follow state bureaucrats’ best practices, the article notes.
Chalkbeat quoted one Ecorse parent who said her daughter “didn’t learn anything” from remote instruction yet hasn’t been helped by the district’s after-school tutoring program, either. This is an example from a district showing above-average dedication to help students catch up in their learning. Billions of promised federal dollars linger at schools’ disposal to spend, but less than a third of districts plan to use any of the money for tutoring.
Should families have to wait for the school to adapt and provide what their children need? Various proposals would put resources into parents’ hands to help them pay for tutoring or other interventions. Proposals for tax credit-funded Student Opportunity Scholarship accounts and federally funded reading scholarships were vetoed by Gov. Whitmer, but may return to the Legislature for a vote later this year. Learning Loss Recovery Grants, which also would be funded by other federal COVID dollars, passed out of committee but await further consideration.
Schools are awash in extra money that won’t ever reach many students who could benefit. The time has come for policymakers to step out of the way and get help directly to families so their children can once again thrive and succeed.
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