Lopsided COVID-19 relief funding for schools doesn’t help students or parents

As millions of students emerge from the pandemic behind in their learning, the federal government has arrived with unprecedented quantities of cash to try to rescue them. 

These parachuted dollars come at a cost. The enormous expenditures increase both the burgeoning national debt and a stifling federal footprint on education. They come with an additional black mark, as well: Congress’s approach to handing out the money doesn’t add up. The spending heavily favors some school districts and neglects others.

The Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), which will deliver most of the federal COVID-19 relief dollars for schools, was funded in three tranches. The $190 billion in combined ESSER funds (more than a quarter of all pre-pandemic revenues received by all public schools in a year) represents a disproportionate response to the pandemic. COVID-19 delivered a considerably smaller economic hit to schools’ regular revenue sources than did the Great Recession. Yet Washington now is sending out roughly twice as many extra dollars as it did to address the crisis of a decade ago. 

Though ESSER funds can be spent over multiple years, they come on top of total revenues that long have been rising. As of 2019, U.S. schools received more than $15,000 per student from all sources. Now the K-12 education system is awash in record levels of funding, with some district leaders wondering how they can prudently spend these newfound sums. Meanwhile, many parents struggle as they try to pay for needed educational alternatives.

In less than a year, Congress allocated three separate rounds of ESSER funds, all according to the same basic formula used for Title I at-risk programs. While Title I’s design has always meant that school districts with more low-income students tend to get more money, in some states the flow from the ESSER fund is wildly unequal.

Nowhere is the disparity clearer than in Michigan. Excluding tiny outliers, one district will get 300 times the ESSER money that another gets, as measured by the number of currently enrolled students. The high-poverty Flint Community Schools will get $49,000 per pupil, compared with $155 per pupil in affluent East Grand Rapids. But neither local wealth nor student needs can fully explain the difference across schools. Flint charter schools serve a similar demographic as the local district, yet they get one-eighth the amount of the district on a per-student basis. 

Four other Michigan districts collect at least $25,000 per student. That includes the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state’s largest, whose $1.25 billion in ESSER receipts dwarfs all others. The city’s charters are taking in about one-fourth the per-student support that the district gets. 

Michigan’s numbers are the most eye-popping. But glimpses at various other states that have posted this data suggest a similar, if less dramatic, situation. In Arkansas, a tenfold gap stands between the bottom and top district, which is bringing in more than $21,000 per pupil in ESSER money. In Virginia, the Petersburg district gets nearly 40 times as much as Falls Church, which is over 100 miles north on I-95. And in Washington state, local collections of federal COVID19 relief range from about $140 to $20,000 per student.

In a vexing development, some school officials have begun to question the value of ESSER funds as a one-time influx of money. One Michigan superintendent recently said that state lawmakers should provide further aid to make up for the federal dollars when they run out in a few years. The argument that this big funding boost can’t work unless it’s made permanent essentially raises expectations for future spending even higher.

Parents and other taxpayers deserve better. Congress has guaranteed the lion’s share of COVID-19 relief money underwriting existing school systems. But the best way state leaders can ensure future dollars are used effectively is to attach them to students instead, bringing relief directly to families who have been overlooked.

In the meantime, the K-12 system’s growing appetite for more resources heightens the need for added safeguards. Local leaders should not be able to keep any secrets in their spending plans for COVID-19 relief dollars. Yet a troubling new report finds that many California districts are not fully disclosing how they intend to use the money. 

Rather than conceal any plans for this extra funding, schools should keep the process open and listen to parents’ input. As some local agencies receive large, lopsided shares of relief dollars, shining a bright light on it is the least they can do.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow.