The political spotlight on COVID school aid money is not going away

The political spotlight on COVID school aid money is not going away

Questions about how schools are using the COVID aid money in particular—and whether they are spending it fast enough—date back to the early days of the CARES Act in early 2020. A few instances of districts using pandemic aid on sports facilities have drawn skeptical reactions. Questions about and calls for more transparency in general about pandemic K-12 aid have grown as time has gone on. California’s state auditor has called for more oversight of schools’ use of $24 billion in relief. And relatively high-profile decisions like switches to remote learning, even temporary ones that have community support during a surge in COVID cases, could attract skepticism focused on why current funding isn’t enough to keep children in classrooms.

The scrutiny from politicians, the media, advocacy groups, researchers, and others comes as individual school districts increasingly are the subject of attention on everything from pandemic relief to issues like critical race theory and equity-focused programs in schools. And it extends to Washington, where lawmakers recently pressed federal officials on the amount of aid and how helpful it is.

Highlights

  • Some lawmakers have already been harsh and blunt about how they view the COVID relief for education.

  • In recent months, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has repeatedly stressed the importance of returning safely to in-person learning and how COVID funding supports such efforts.

Such scrutiny could intersect with new “Parents’ Bill of Rights” bills introduced by congressional Republicans, who in the wake of Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race are demanding that teachers and schools leaders be much more transparent about decisions concerning curriculum, library interests, and other matters, including budgets. And it could drive Capitol Hill hearings and other oversight activities if the GOP takes control of one or both chambers of Congress following the 2022 midterm elections.

“The Democrats’ radical spending spree should not be seen as anything other than a frenzied attempt to score political points with teachers’ unions,” Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, told U.S. Department of Education officials during a Nov. 17 House education subcommittee hearing. “Democrats have shown little interest in how these funds are being used and if they’ve accomplished any of the attempted purposes.” (Owens is the subcommittee’s ranking member.)

How use of funds could prompt uncomfortable questions

After researching the potential impact of federal virus relief on COVID-related expenses in schools, Georgetown University Professor Nora Gordon said that if a district is struggling to find and hire substitute teachers and classes are interrupted as a result, for example, scrutiny could quickly follow as to whether pandemic money being spent elsewhere should have been redirected.

“If a district is not delivering services that would seem reasonable at any time or in response to COVID, and then it says they don’t have the money, people should be asking, ‘Oh, well, what are you spending the ESSER money on?’” she said. But district leaders should aggressively assert the flexibility the law gives them when deciding how to use aid money for COVID mitigation and helping students recover academically and otherwise, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

“Every time I speak to superintendents, I am stressing for them, number one, the intended and inherent flexibility in the law” providing COVID aid, she said. Ellerson Ng added that, in general and within reason, “If it is not prohibited, it is allowed.” In an exchange with Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten during the House subcommittee hearing—which also featured Republicans’ concerns about department grants for history education, and the Biden administration’s approach to transgender student rights—Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., pressed her about why people should be confident about the benefits of all the COVID aid. “How can parents know that COVID-relief funds have had a net positive impact on their children?” he asked at one point.

Marten pointed to the department’s website that features data on COVID-19 relief for K-12 as well as higher education. This and other monitoring of spending by districts “provides the clarity and transparency for everybody to be able to access that and to ensure that the dollars are being used in the intended manner,” Marten told lawmakers. The sentiments from Owens, Banks, and others could drive extensive federal oversight of schools and relief money if, as many expect, Republicans take control of one or both chambers of Congress after the 2022 midterm elections.

Superintendents should think carefully about framing decisions in the context of students and not adult interests, Ellerson Ng said. For instance, if a school spends money on a new sports facility, she said, leaders should emphasize how using funding that way improves children’s physical and psychological well-being and helps build social connections for students after the pandemic’s negative effects on those issues. In addition, building more infrastructure for things like athletics can help schools socially distance students if the need arises, she noted. “As an administrator, you have the responsibility to make the decision, but you also have the responsibility to communicate that decision” to school communities, Ellerson Ng said. “Even if they’re not bought in, help them understand.”

“There is a plethora of resources for states and districts to know how to direct the funds in the ways intended,” Marten said. Democrats also aren’t averse to raising the issue. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, told Marten he assumed that if the Education Department identified districts that were wasting COVID relief funds, it would tell the media about those districts.