Teachers often insist that students show their work. Well, after pumping an extra $190 billion into 13,000 school districts over the last two years to help them cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government ought to make the same demand of districts: How did they spend all that money, and are the students in their schools better off for it?
It’s an unprecedented amount of cash, and it came with few strings attached — a “grand experiment” in public education, as one school finance expert put it. Schools faced a huge, sudden list of new needs, from installing ventilation systems to addressing educational setbacks for the many students who struggled with remote learning.
So how much of that money was spent on strengthening summer school programs? How much money is being directed at addressing the emotional wellness of students? And which districts are using the money in debatable ways, such as to fill gaps in their school budgets or, say, to build athletic facilities?
There are no answers, at least not yet. The US Department of Education has not been thoroughly tracking how those billions are being spent, according to a recent investigation by ProPublica. The lack of proper data collection, monitoring, and oversight of district spending means there is no way to know what impact the funds are having on students’ academic recovery.
The $190 billion was allocated to districts through their state education departments in three buckets of money, starting last year with the CARES ACT right after the pandemic hit. The largest pot of funds came from the American Rescue Plan Act, the coronavirus relief legislation passed by Congress in the spring of this year. Districts can spend the money on practically anything even tangentially related to reopening schools safely and pandemic recovery, as long as it’s spent by 2024. Construction of new buildings? Sure. COVID tests? Absolutely. Teachers’ bonuses and electric buses? Also allowed.
State education agencies did have to submit spending plans to the federal government, and provisional annual reports. But the data included are very broad; for instance, there were six categories to classify expenditures, like sanitization, mental health services and supports, and a miscellaneous bucket called “other.” Not only are such broad categories an invitation for fraud or waste, but they’re also too vague to track even well-spent dollars.
Some states have voluntarily disclosed district expenditures beyond those minimal federal requirements. According to the ProPublica report, the Georgia state department of education created a dashboard tracking districts’ spending. Indiana is developing an online portal to release information. A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said the agency is collecting data on how districts are spending the money. The most recent data the state has are from the first wave of federal dollars, from March to September of last year. It’s unclear if the state plans to publicly release such information.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t be up to states — the Department of Education must strengthen its oversight requirements. Officials needn’t look too far back into history to see how well-intended grants can be misspent, depriving schools of the help Congress intended them to receive. In 2009, following the financial crisis, Congress appropriated nearly $100 billion for education-related grant programs to counteract the effects of the economic downturn, money intended to create and save jobs and bolster the economy. But a subsequent report from the Department of Education Office of Inspector General found that the department needed to improve data collection and monitoring practices to prevent potential misuse of funds. The office opened more than 200 criminal investigations involving “allegations of fraud, waste, or abuse,” the report noted.
In the face of such a warning, the Department of Education should make it a priority to increase data collection requirements. It’s not just about good governance or for accountability purposes. American schoolchildren are in the midst of a mental health crisis brought on by the isolation caused by school closures; they’ve fallen behind academically; many are also coping with the loss of family members from the disease. The $190 billion represents a significant promise to those students, that the country cares about their healing and their future enough to invest in it. The federal government has an obligation to ensure that districts are making good on that vow.
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