COVID school relief money falls short for improving student success, study shows

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Despite the federal government giving states and school districts billions of dollars to combat student learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, student achievement is on the decline across the nation, and the money to solve it may not be enough, especially for places with the greatest needs, according to a new analysis published Tuesday.

While federal emergency relief dollars for schools specifically set aside to address student learning loss totaled about $189 billion, schools needed about $500 billion, the new study from the American Educational Research Association found. 

As great as the need may be for additional resources, the authors of the study are urging the federal government to look at recent national standardized test score results showing declines in student achievement before giving states and districts any more money.

“The magnitude of learning loss in students is so big. We need to address it immediately with the best policy interventions in the use of [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] funding to remediate even larger learning loss,” said Matthew P. Steinberg, one of the study’s authors, in an interview, referring to the pandemic aid provided to schools in the last two years. Steinberg is also an associate professor of education and public policy and director of EdPolicyForward at George Mason University Schar School of Policy & Government.

In their analysis, the authors compared federal government spending during the pandemic with its spending during the Great Recession. In both cases, they found that the way the money was distributed and how it was earmarked, or not, for specific uses has been problematic and did not meet intended policy goals. 

“Despite the radically different impacts that the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic have had on US society and on the US K-12 educational system specifically, we can document commonalities in federal policy during these two crises,” wrote Steinberg and his co-author Kenneth Shores, an assistant professor in education and social policy at the University of Delaware College of Education and Human Development, wrote.

President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law in March 2021, allocating $1.9 trillion in federal aid in emergency assistance funds in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan included money for schools to address student learning loss, open schools safely, address student mental health and handle other pandemic-related needs. Part of those funds were set aside specifically to mitigate learning loss. The federal government has not yet handed out all of the relief dollars to schools. 

“States and school districts have the resources they need, and are required to address the impacts of the pandemic on students’ learning … States are specifically required to address the needs of students disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, including students with disabilities, English learners, and students experiencing homelessness,” the White House said a year after Biden signed his aid package into law.

While the federal government holds onto what’s left of the aid money, the Education Department should consider spending on the most at-need students, Steinberg said. 

“From a policy perspective, increasing the amount of federal aid might be difficult politically, but publicizing the costs needed to remediate losses (either of revenues in the case of the Great Recession or learning in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic) might help. Moreover, while we do not suggest that federal aid be earmarked for specific uses (e.g., such as with categorical aid), the lack of consistent and complete data collection constrains accountability efforts and may reduce political support for federal assistance,” the report reads. 

The Education Department did not immediately return a request for comment.

What do students need to recover from?

A recent national report shows the nation’s 9-year-olds severely fell behind in math and reading during the pandemic. And while no group of students was left untouched by declining standardized test scores, the gaps in achievement only widened between Black and Hispanic students in comparison to their white and Asian peers. 

More:‘Largest score decline’ in reading for nation’s 9-year-olds, first-ever drop in math

Steinberg said the federal government should look at the students most affected and give schools in those parts of the country additional funding to address learning loss.

“We need to do better in targeting federal aid to districts who need it the most, and in being more flexible in spending over time instead of moving forward with specific allocations and block grants,” Steinberg said, adding that federal block spending could have widened the achievement gaps across states for poorer students. Some states with identical levels of student poverty are more progressive than others, and that can determine how much Title I funding – for schools with a large number of kids from low-income families – those schools receive. 

What can the federal government do?

As school districts respond and attempt to mitigate students’ learning loss, the researchers recommend the federal government change the ways it disperses taxpayer dollars to districts. And they said there is far too little accountability for how districts spend those dollars. 

“Policymakers should require, or least provide incentives to, school districts to use federal aid for remediating student learning losses,” said Steinberg. “This is much more important than using it, for example, for new facilities construction – such as athletic fields – that have little to do with addressing the academic needs of students.”

Increased state- and district- level transparency in spending during crises helps policymakers address the discrepancies, Steinberg and Shores wrote. There isn’t a national database tracking how aid is being spent, but groups including FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, during the pandemic have analyzed some of the available data on local district and state spending of aid. 

One suggestion the authors offered to the federal government is to require all, or at least a sample, of districts to report how their revenues were spent to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

And future spending by the government during such crises should be less reliant on “distributional mechanisms of convenience, such as state funding formulae or Title I allocations, and instead be more tightly connected to policy goals” to adequately meet the vastly different needs of student learning loss across the nation, Steinberg and Shores wrote in their analysis. 

Contact Kayla Jimenez at Follow her on Twitter at @kaylajjimenez.

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