How are schools spending federal pandemic relief funds?
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The American Rescue Plan allocated $122 billion in federal funds to U.S. schools in March in an effort to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. But since the government awarded the money without many restrictions in place, the question of where the money will go and how effective these funds will be remains mostly unanswered.
Nic Querolo is a business reporter at Bloomberg News and recently wrote an article on how schools are spending the federal stimulus funds. Querolo writes that “the funding represents a historic infusion of federal money into local school districts” with officials across the country preparing to use the funds for mental health and staffing concerns, as well as issues of equity.
“Marketplace” host Amy Scott spoke with Querolo to find out how effective these funds will be and what the future of education funding could look like. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Nic Querolo: We’re starting to see a couple really big spending areas emerge, like summer school, tutoring, HVAC replacement in schools that have historically had pretty bad air filtration systems. But this is still just a sliver of the, you know, over 10,000 school districts in the United States that we’re starting to get some insight into.
Amy Scott: At least 20% of this money is supposed to be spent to address learning loss caused by the pandemic and through what is called evidence-based interventions. What kind of interventions are we talking about?
Querolo: Yeah, that’s right. That could look like quite a few things, like, you know, extending the school day, really targeted approaches to intensive tutoring with students or putting in place some sort of summer school program to catch students up who really lost quite a bit of their educational attainment during the pandemic.
Scott: This is a ton of money. And, you know, people are rightly skeptical sometimes when school districts have a big chunk of money to spend. What kind of accountability is there?
Querolo: There have been some critiques that maybe the reporting and monitoring of this money is a bit lackluster. States are set up to monitor this money very differently across the U.S. And so if you don’t really have a strong sense of whether the money is being spent efficiently or whether it’s working, you might really not know that until the end of the period. Whereas if you had some better tracking, you know, some researchers are saying we could do a mid-course correction and move money from purpose A to purpose B.
Scott: I’m wondering also what this means for future spending on education. As one of your sources pointed out, you know, once you’ve funded a program, it’s really hard to take it away. And I wonder if we learned something from the last big injection of stimulus money for education in 2009, during the Obama administration?
Querolo: That’s exactly right. I mean, even though schools have gotten piles of money in the past, this is quite larger. We spoke with one school district, the [chief financial officer] of the Philadelphia school district, who is really concerned with ‘what our financial statement is going to look like when we come out of the pandemic, and are we putting in place programs that are sustainable?’ Because this is a one-time amount of money, it’s really hard to do things like hire new staff or counselors or put money towards recurring expenses when that money is going to expire. Because the last thing that the school districts want to do is come to rely on a more robust counseling force or, you know, a more robust staff of teachers and have to take that away. You know, in some ways that can be more damaging.
Scott: Yeah, I wondered if you know if any of this money that’s being dedicated toward staffing is doing anything to address the, you know, teacher resignations and burnout that we’ve been reading so much about and the labor shortages.
Querolo: It’s a big problem for school districts right now. A lot of school districts are putting money from this toward things like hiring bonuses or giving pay boosts to teachers for that very reason. Those, in some ways, are a little bit better. Whereas hiring a new staff on a new salary — something that needs to be recurring — can be really difficult. But it’s really one of the chief concerns of school districts during the pandemic and in the aftermath.
Scott: Did anything surprise you as you were reporting this story?
Querolo: You know, one thing that did surprise me is just, I think it’s very easy to criticize school districts and, you know, their use of these funds. But really, this is an enormously challenging prospect for school budget officials. I think I was surprised by how many experts that I’ve talked to that said they were impressed to see that a lot of the money is going where it’s supposed to go. It’s being used how it’s supposed to be used.
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