California’s school districts and charter schools have spent more than $5 billion in the final round of federal Covid-relief aid and invested nearly a third of that into academic recovery efforts, according to a new analysis released today by FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
The spending on academic recovery puts California schools well ahead of the federal requirement to spend 20 percent of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER III) dollars on addressing learning gaps that developed during the pandemic. However, some of the state’s broad reporting categories provide little transparency into exactly how the unprecedented infusion of federal aid is being used.
“Our findings are by turns encouraging and troubling,” said FutureEd Director Thomas Toch. “While it’s encouraging to see the money invested in academic recovery and mental health support for students, too much of the spending remains shrouded in vague categories that give us little sense of what districts are actually doing.”
The analysis draws on data from the California Department of Education’s spending portal, which records how much local education agencies have spent in ESSER III money as of the end of March 2023. The aid, which Congress allocated through the American Rescue Plan, adds up to $13.5 billion for more than 1,700 school districts, charter organizations and county education agencies across the state.
The analysis shows:
- California’s districts and charters have averaged about $1 billion in ESSER III spending over the past few quarters. At that pace, local agencies should come close to spending or obligating the federal aid by the September 2024 deadline.
- The pace of spending varies widely across the state: At least 131 local education agencies have reported spending all their ESSER III funds, and another 235 have used at least 80 percent. Many of these places received modest sums because they have small student populations or few students living in poverty.
- At the other end of the spectrum, some 60 local education agencies had not spent any of their ESSER III funds by the end of March, and another 108 had spent less than 10 cents of every dollar they received. Many of these are large districts with a lot of money to spend.
- Academic recovery dominates the spending so far, totaling $1.5 billion. At least $303 million has gone toward summer learning, afterschool and extended time programs and $74 million for tutoring. The bulk of academic recovery expenditures, though, appear in generic categories, such as “addressing learning loss” and “other learning loss interventions.”
- Mental health support comprises a small portion of the total but is increasing at a faster rate than other priorities, up from $24 million in the final quarter of 2021 to $66 million in the final quarter of 2022 to $105 million in the first quarter of 2023.
- More than a fifth of the spending so far, $1.1 billion, falls into a broad category for sustaining operations and continuity of services at schools. While the federal law specifically allows such spending, the language offers little insights as to how districts are using the money. Another vague category—resources for individual schools—accounts for another $500 million or 10 percent of the total.
California, home to 12 percent of the nation’s public school students, received the largest share in three rounds of federal ESSER aid: $23.4 billion of the $189 billion allotted through a formula weighted toward communities with high concentrations of poverty. Altogether, California’s state and local education agencies have spent nearly three fifths of the ESSER allotment, including most of the first two rounds of funding.
For more information on spending priorities or individual school districts, contact Phyllis Jordan at Phyllis.email@example.com or 202-413-2247.
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