What if US public schools were given a huge chunk of money that they could spend on pretty much whatever they wanted? What would they do? We are in the process of finding out. As Marguerite Roza and Katherine Silberstein discuss “A year ago, school districts got a windfall of pandemic aid. How’s that going?” (Brookings Institution, March 31, 2022). They begin: “T]his month marks one year since Congress approved the largest-ever one-time investment in public education: ESSER III, as it’s known, averaged $2,400 per student. This latest round of money left the federal treasury at warp speed, with $80 billion out the door in less than two weeks. From there, the aid went to state education agencies, where it sat. And sat. And nearly all of it still sits today.” 

A bit of background is probably useful here. ESSER stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. The National Council on State Legislatures explains:

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed on March 27, 2020, provided $13.5 billion to the ESSER Fund. The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021 (CRRSA), passed on Dec. 27, 2020, provided $54.3 billion in supplemental ESSER funding, known as the ESSER II fund. The American Rescue Plan Act, passed on March 11, 2021, provided $122.7 billion in supplemental ESSER funding, known as the ESSER III fund.

There is a federal webpage that tracks not whether states have received the money (they have) or whether plans have been made to spend the money, but whether the money has actually been spent. There is a use-it-or-lose-it date of September 2024 for these funds, and Roza and Silberstein point out that at the current pace, the funds will not actually be spent. Of the funds that have been spent, how was the money used?

The law gives districts wide latitude and few restrictions, and thus choices are all over the map. One district awards sizable staff bonuses, another remodels a building, and another hires an army of counselors, nurses, and social workers. Some are launching tutoring efforts, while others are investing in professional development or refreshing their curriculum and technology. Atlanta added 30 minutes to the school day and Boston is running summer recovery courses for teens. Some are doing a bit of everything.

In many regions, the flurry of spending has triggered a corresponding flurry of hiring. Districts are competing for a limited labor pool, and using signing bonuses, retention pay, and other strategies to expand labor rolls to a new and higher level than ever before.

In contrast, some big, urban districts, including those in Minneapolis, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, are using funds to backfill budget gaps (some caused by pre-pandemic overspending or enrollment losses). Instead of launching new programs and hiring new staff, the funds are paying the salaries of staff who’ve been in these districts for years.

In the end, there simply is no “typical” spending profile.

It is perhaps worth noting that these ESSER funds are clearly not effective at providing a quick stimulus for the economy–they would have to be spent to do that. But K-12 schools do face an enormous challenge. The pandemic has left behind an enormous and nationwide pattern of “learning loss”–that is, students who have aged a couple of calendar years but have not gained the learning that would otherwise have been expected. Roza and Silberstein are blunt about the prospects that the ESSER funding will address the learning loss problem:

All told, this means we’re counting on leaders in thousands of districts to figure this out on the fly—and fast. And they’re expected to do so with no established data systems that could point the way. Some district investments will put student learning back on track and others won’t. Only in a few years will we have any indication of which districts did what and whether it worked. In that sense, the American Rescue Plan’s strategy might be best described as: fund and pray.

What should be done with the money? American K-12 school districts are wildly heterogenous, both across and within states, so it’s not easy to stay. Evidence from before the pandemic suggests that a combination of summer school and intense tutoring can help.

The Aspen Economic Strategy group recently published a book with eight essays appearing on Rebuilding the Post-Pandemic Economy (November 2021). Nora Gordon and Sarah Reber contribute an essay on “Addressing Inequities in the US K-12 Education System.” They provide an overview of the US K-12 education system, and offer a reminder that many students and schools were already facing substantial issues before the pandemic. I was struck by this figure showing cross-state differences in K-12 education. In particular, the middle column shows revenue per student across US states, while the final columns shows the differences in how states depend on local, state, and federal revenue.

They also point out:

Discussions of school funding equity—and considerable legal action—focus on inequality of funding across school districts within the same state. While people often assume districts serving disadvantaged students spend less per pupil than wealthier districts within a state, per-pupil spending and the child poverty rate are nearly always uncorrelated or positively correlated, with higher-poverty districts spending more on average. Typically, disadvantaged districts receive more state and federal funding, offsetting differences in funding from local sources.

They discuss evidence on a variety of possible K-12 school reforms, with an emphasis on the importance of the basics: high quality teachers and principals focused on a core curriculum. I was struck by this comment:

Quick fixes are few and far between, but improvements to school infrastructure stand out as low-hanging fruit. … Research shows that spending on capital improvements or to build new schools improves test scores and other outcomes (Jackson and Mackevicius 2021). Though the CDC notes there is no safe level of lead exposure for children, 37% of schools that test for lead reported elevated lead levels; fewer than half of districts even tested (GAO 2018b). Evidence that poor indoor air quality and exposure to lead and other toxins impedes learning and can have long-term effects is now conclusive (Aizer et al. 2018; Stafford 2015). Approximately one-third of schools require HVAC updates (GAO 2020). Studies also show that heat impacts learning adversely, especially when schools do not have air-conditioning (Park et al. 2020; Park, Behrer, and Goodman 2021). Schools serving low-income students and students of color are more likely to lack air conditioning conditional on other factors, and Park et al. (2020) estimate that heat accounts for 1 to 13% of U.S. racial achievement gaps. Installing air conditioning could plausibly help shrink achievement gaps.

America’s K-12 schools have an opportunity to show what they can do with a substantial infusion of public funds. The schools also face ongoing risks to their reputation and public support if they do not rise to the moment.