This story was originally published by ProPublica.
The Education Department’s limited tracking of $190 billion in pandemic support funds sent to schools has left officials in the dark about how effective the aid has been in helping students.
After the pandemic shut down schools across the country, the federal government provided about $190 billion
in aid to help them reopen and respond to the effects of the pandemic. In the year and a half since millions of children were sent home, the Education Department has done only limited tracking of how the money has been spent. That has left officials in Washington largely in the dark about how effective the aid has been in helping students, especially those whose schools and communities were among the hardest hit 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 reports submitted
to the federal government by state education agencies underscored the dearth of clear, detailed data. Agencies classified how the funds were spent using six very broad categories, including technology and sanitization. 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 have been found to be spending their federal funds on projects seemingly at odds with the spirit of the aid program, such as track and field facilities and bleachers.
While such spending is not prohibited by the federal government, the stated goals of the relief program were to open schools safely to maximize in-person learning and, more broadly, to address the impact of the pandemic.
The Biden administration wants to collect more data. But its efforts have come more than a year after the previous administration began disbursing the relief funds, and some school districts have bristled at the belated push for more detailed data collection.
Hyslop said that while this may place an added burden on districts, the information is essential. “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 aid was allocated
from March 2020 to March 2021 and funneled through state education departments into K-12 school districts, which have until 2024 to budget the last of the funds.