Limited Tracking of Pandemic School Aid Leaves Effectiveness of Funding Unclear

The federal government provided about $2.2 million in aid to schools affected by the pandemic. $190 billionin order to help them reopen their homes and respond to the pandemic. The Education Department has only done a limited amount of tracking of how the money was spent over the past year and a quarter since millions of children were sent home. Washington officials are largely unaware of how effective the aid was in helping students, particularly those whose schools or communities were most severely affected by the pandemic.

“We’ve been in the pandemic now for nearly a year and a half,” said Anne Hyslop, the director of policy development at the education advocacy group Alliance for Excellent Education. “There is a responsibility to the public to make sure the funds are spent responsibly, but also make sure that the funding that is spent is accountable to supporting students and educators.”

Provisional annual reporting submittedThe dearth of detailed data from the state education agencies was highlighted by the federal government. The six broad categories that agencies used to classify how the funds were spent, including technology and sanitation, are what they used. According to a ProPublica analysis of more than 16,000 of the reports covering March 2020 to September 2020, just over half of the $3 billion in aid was categorized as “other,” providing no insight into how the funds were allocated.

In the absence of a centralized and detailed federal tracking system, the monitoring of relief funds flowing to the nation’s more than 13,000 school districts has largely been left to states. Some districts were found to have spent federal funds on projects that were not in accord with the aid program’s spirit. These included bleachers, track and field facilities, and other related projects.

Although federal law does not prohibit such spending, the relief program had the stated goal of opening schools to maximize in-person learning and to address pandemic effects.

The Biden administration wants more data. However, the Biden administration is trying to collect more data. This comes more than a year after relief funds were disbursed by the previous administration. Some school districts are not happy about the late push for more detailed data collection.

Hyslop stated that although this could put additional burden on districts, the information remains vital. “We need this data to make sure the needs are met, to make sure high-needs schools are not being shortchanged. … We have to make sure this is actually supporting students.”

The majority of the school assistance was allocatedFrom March 2020 to March 2021, the funds were funneled through state education department into K-12 school district budgets. They have until 2024 for the final budget.

These terms apply laid outThe federal government is responsible for the states. developingTracking systems are used to verify that districts are spending money on the prevention of pandemics.

Since long, the federal government has given states a lot of freedom in setting standards and curriculum. Christine Pitts, a fellow of the Center on Reinventing Public Education said that the responsibility for tracking COVID-19 aid funds has also been delegated, creating a patchwork in oversight practices. “There’s 50 states, and oftentimes in education that means there’s 50 different ways of doing the business,” said Pitts.

The federal government is now requesting limited information from states about how their funds have been spent. The department also needs spending plans from states. These plans must have been approved before the final round of funds can be released.

These reporting requirements are very limited and reflect the urgency of the pandemic’s early days, when officials needed to get money to schools as quickly as possible.

The first federal relief dollars began to flow to districts in June 2020. In June 2020, the office for inspector general of Education Department warned in a reportThe department should improve its oversight, monitoring, data collection and monitoring in order to reduce fraud and waste. OIG pointed out that the Education Department was responsible, after the financial crisis of 2007-2008, for allocating $98 Billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This led to numerous investigations into abuse and wasted funds.

When the OIG raised concerns last year to then-Deputy Education Secretary Mick Zais, Zais said the pandemic aid legislation itself had created “enormous pressure” to distribute funds quickly, according to an OIG report.

A spokesperson for the OIG, Catherine Grant, said that while distributing pandemic aid presented its own challenges, oversight and monitoring were “longstanding” issues for the department.

Luke Jackson, a spokesperson for the Education Department, said in an emailed statement that the department was working with states and districts to collect preliminary data to “to ensure federal funds are being spent to best serve the needs of students, educators, and school communities.”

The law doesn’t place any restrictions on how districts may spend federal aid so long as they are not directly linked to the pandemic. This flexibility has allowed districts to finance projects that some education experts consider unaffordable. questionable.

Iowa’s Creston Community School District used $231,000 of its pandemic relief money to upgrade its outdoor stadium and expand its bleachers. District documents indicate that the construction is intended for increased social distancing and wheelchair accessibility.

Creston’s superintendent, Deron Stender, did not respond to ProPublica’s requests for comment.

Last month, the school board in Pulaski, Kentucky approved the reconstruction and funding of its track and field facilities. The track replacement will be funded with federal pandemic funds of approximately $1 million.

“We want to have facilities that are great for our students,” the district superintendent, Patrick Richardson, told a local paperAfter the project was approved. Richardson did not respond to ProPublica’s requests for comment.

“There is certainly a lot of flexibility on how the money can be used,” said Hyslop of the Alliance for Excellent Education, but said athletic investments are “not in the spirit of the law.”

Jackson, the Education Department spokesperson, did not respond to ProPublica’s question about using relief funds for athletic projects.

Parents have complained about school districts’ spending priorities in other cases. Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia spent more than $45 Million of its pandemic funding for ventilation systems and personal protection equipment. However, some parents believe that this is not true. more federal aidServices should have been directed at students with special needsWho is it? representThe district enrolled approximately 14.4% of the 178,000 students.

Debra Tisler, a former teacher in special education, stated that her 15-year old son, who suffers from dyslexia, saw his 20-hour-per-month specialized instruction cut in half, over the course of more that a year of virtual learning.

In January 2021 the federal education department was established opened up an investigation into Fairfax schools because of “disturbing reports involving the district’s provision of educational services to children with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Asked on Tuesday about the status of the Fairfax investigation, the Education Department’s press office did not have that information readily available.

“They have the ability to do it and they are choosing not to. It’s heartbreaking,” said Tisler, who has had a contentious relationship with the district. Her son, Tisler, returned to school in August.

In the first two wavesOf pandemic aidFairfax schools received at most $157.5 million from the state, county, and federal governments. Of that, it spent $9.6 millions on direct services for students who have disabilities to help them catch-up, according to budget documents. Helen Lloyd, a spokesperson for Fairfax County Public Schools, said that much of the initial coronavirus relief funds paid for “systemwide technology, school safety mitigation measures and equipment and PPE costs.” She said it is not possible to calculate the proportion of the funding that paid only for services for students with disabilities.

Lloyd did not specifically address Tisler’s concerns, citing privacy protections, but the spokesperson said that the district’s spending plan was based on extensive community input and that learning loss was found to be a priority. She also said that the district had allocated $46.2million from the third wave pandemic aid this year. This money is being used. extendSpecial education teachers’ contracts are increased by 30 minutes per day, and $500,000 to combat learning loss among students with disabilities.

The McAllen Independent Schools District spent $4 million of its education relief funds to build a 5-acre outdoor learning area connected to a city-owned nature and birding centre. Tory Guerra, whose children attend McAllen’s schools, expressed concerns that the project, which will not be completed until December 2024, is not prioritizing the urgent learning needs of children who have been directly impacted by the pandemic.

“​​There are so many other programs that we could invest in that we could use immediately and see benefits immediately rather than years down the road,” Guerra said. Guerra believes federal aid should directly address students’ emotional and academic well-being, which is often a challenge for many who struggle to keep up in school. “Half the kids won’t even get to reap the benefit because the nature center isn’t even built.”

Mark May, a spokesperson for the McAllen independent district, said the cost of the project is a small fraction of the district’s $139.5 million in aid. He said the outdoor space will provide students with resources and experiences that will bolster children’s scientific knowledge.

Some states or districts have their own public reporting systems. Georgia’s education department developed a dashboard that displays how much money each district has. receivedThe programs they have spent it on. But other states have not offered as much visibility into districts’ spending. Indiana, for instance, has not made any public information, but it is currently creating an online portal.

In the provisional federal reports that categorize how aid money is spent, some of the largest districts in the nation marked all of their aid as going to the “other” category, including Los Angeles Unified, which spent $49.5 million, and New York City’s schools, which spent $111.5 million.

Instead of spending the aid on summer school or technology, New York City’s district, the largest in the country, used its federal funds to plug a gap in its budget, which had been cut by the state. Katie O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for the district, told ProPublica that the district used the funds to cover the wages and operations of custodial workers. O’Hanlon said the district had followed state reporting requirements. J.P. O’Hare, a spokesperson for the New York State Education Department, said the state is using the “other” category until the federal government provides more direction on reporting requirements.

Shannon Haber, a spokesperson for Los Angeles Unified, said the district’s reporting was submitted based on the state’s requirements. Many districts categorized their spending as “other” initially, but as the school year progressed, the spending categories diversified, said Scott Roark, a spokesperson for the California Department of Education.

Even though the information is public at a local level it is not possible to see a national picture due to the lack of standardization between states.

Some experts believe it may be too early to have a better view of how the aid was spent. “There’s going to be a natural lag between a district receiving the money, spending the money and reporting up to the state,” said Paige Kowalski, executive vice president for the education advocacy group Data Quality Campaign.

Experts disagree and say that schools cannot shift priorities without real-time information about district spending. Schools will not be able change priorities if they find programs that are more successful than others.

“There can be an opportunity to do mid-course corrections, if we find something working well or not well,” said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington. “We will be in a bad place if we don’t have much evidence that $200 billion didn’t move the needle.”

The federal Education Department was established in July. announcedPlans to increase data collection from districts by 2022, but many districts and state education agencies warned that they could be overburdened if there is more oversight.

“It will take another block of time,” said Brenda Turner, the business manager of Haskell Consolidated Independent School District in central Texas, adding that her district already filed detailed plans to the state’s education department explaining how Haskell planned to spend its aid. “They need to figure out how to pull it out of their own system to report to the federal government instead of putting it on us.”