An unprecedented amount of money is flowing to K-12 schools from the federal government and districts are planning to spend it on summer schools, tutoring programs and, in some places, teacher bonuses.
About $128 billion was approved by Congress in March as part of the most recent stimulus, nearly double the amount sent to K-12 schools from the previous two Covid-19 relief packages. The money comes at a time when schools, some of which are chronically underfunded, are facing the unprecedented challenge of bringing all students back into the classroom for in-person instruction five days a week amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Rather than focusing on upgrading HVAC, providing PPE and other emergency needs, the law requires some of the new money must be used to address learning loss, which could include extended school days, tutors or summer school.
Other than that restriction, schools have the flexibility to spend the money on a broad range of pandemic-related needs — though state education agencies can decide how to spend about 10% of the pot. Some of it may go to one-time purchases, like hand sanitizer, but some may support a teacher’s salary, which is paid over time. They’re not required to spend all the money until 2024.
The massive influx of funds is intended to help schools return to normal, but could also help start to fix some of the problems that existed before the pandemic. The decentralized nature of the US school system, however, makes it difficult to track how exactly districts are spending the money.
Here’s what we know about what schools are getting and how they might spend it.
How much money are they getting?
Congress has included more than $192 billion for K-12 schools — roughly six times the amount of the fiscal year 2021 base federal funding — in the three big Covid relief bills passed since last March.
Each piece of legislation sent more money to K-12 schools than the last.
When the pandemic first hit, the CARES Act authorized about $13 billion for K-12 schools, or about $270 per pupil. The bill passed in December delivered about $54 billion, or $1,100 per pupil, and the most recent package allowed for $128 billion in spending, that amounts to $2,600 per pupil, according to Phyllis Jordan, editorial director at a non-partisan think tank at Georgetown University called FutureEd.
Not every school will get the same amount. The law directs the states to disburse the money like it does Title I funding, which means more money goes to districts with a higher percentage of low-income families.
The money will go to both public and private schools. While the first two relief bills lumped the money together, the latest package provides $125 billion for public K-12 schools and a separate pot worth $2.75 billion for private schools.
The law included some provisions to make sure states and localities do not spend less on education from their own budgets than they normally would because schools are getting more federal money.
When will schools get the money?
Schools should get the money from the latest bill, which passed in March, within the next two months — but it varies by state. The funds first flow to the state education agencies first, which disburse the money to local school districts.
The Department of Education released about two-thirds of the money to states on March 24, less than two weeks after President Joe Biden signed the bill into law. The remaining funds will be made available after a state submits its plan for using the money.
The law says that states have 60 days to disburse the money to districts, “to the extent practicable.”
What can the money be spent on?
State agencies must send 90% of the funds directly to the school districts and cannot impose further restrictions on how the funds are spent.
The local school district must reserve 20% of the money it gets for learning loss intervention. This could be a tutoring program, summer school or extended schools days.
“As established in the law, it’s pretty flexible. A lot could fall under learning loss, like PPE and teachers’ salaries,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of advocacy and governance at AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
There are few restrictions on the remaining money as well. The law notes that it can be spent on things like sanitation supplies, technology, mental health services and ventilation systems, to name a few.
States education agencies also face some restrictions on how they spend the money they’ve been allocated: 5% on learning loss, 1% on summer enrichment and 1% after-school programs.
What have schools already spent the money on?
Schools spent a big portion of the money from the first relief bill, passed a year ago, on PPE, cleaning supplies, technology and learning management systems that helped students learn from home, salaries and wages — according to a survey from the Association of School Business Officials conducted in February.
The priority uses for the money approved in December shifted more toward addressing learning loss, but technology and salaries and wages remained at the top.
Additional money for broadband, testing and students with disabilities
A separate $7.2 billion pot of funding was authorized in the latest Covid relief bill that will go to improve internet connectivity at homes and libraries. It’s meant to help students learn remotely if they have to as well as complete their homework.
The bill allocated another $10 billion to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help schools conduct Covid testing for students and staff as well as adding $3 billion to a fund within the Department of Education that helps students with disabilities.
Another $800 million was carved out to help students experiencing homelessness — a provision that wasn’t included in earlier relief bills, and inconsistent with typical emergency relief plans for weather related disasters, said Phillip Lovell, vice president of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a group that advocates to make sure all students graduate from high school.
“It was a woeful oversight, but Congress finally recognized they needed to do something to support homeless kids,” Lovell added.