The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant and lasting impact on tens of millions of students across the country. According to a July 21, 2021, McKinsey and Company report, students lost an average of five months of math and four months of reading, leading to a lower lifetime income of at least $ 49,000 and a reduction in annual economic growth of at least $ 128 billion.
Through Coronavirus aid, relief and economic security (CARES), the COVID package of December 2020 and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), Congress approved $ 190.5 billion in aid to school districts. Notably, the full Department of Education budgets for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 were $ 72.7 billion and $ 73.6 billion, respectively. The funds from each bill are distributed in accordance with Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In an effort to address the “unfinished learning” cited by McKinsey, federal guidelines require local education agencies to allocate at least 20 percent of the $ 122.7 billion provided in ARPA for learning recovery.
Given the dire consequences of the pandemic for both students and the economy, every penny of these funds must be spent effectively and efficiently. But the massive increase in available funding and insufficient oversight has led many school districts to invest money in projects unrelated to recovery from the pandemic, including sports facilities and an urban bird sanctuary.
In one of the most impressive examples of aid fund abuse, the Whitewater, Wis., School board voted for to assign 80 percent of its $ 2 million Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Aid (ESSER) grant for the construction of synthetic turf fields for soccer, baseball and softball. When asked why the funds should be used for athletic fields rather than educational projects, Whitewater High School athletic director Justin Crandall told the school board that he did not envision the district as one “that would go to a field referendum. of grass “. Instead of testing Crandall’s theory, the school board decided to bill the American people for the projects.
In South Texas, the McAllen Independent School District Board of Trustees assigned $ 4 million in ESSER relief funds to facilitate the expansion of the Quinta Mazatlán nature center, owned by the city. Although the district cited the “rare opportunity” provided by “a real science lab right here in our backyard,” the proposal received strong criticism from district parents. One of the parents, Tory Guerra, rightly questioned how the shrine related to the recovery of the students. Because the project will not be completed until 2024, she observed, “Half of the kids won’t even get the benefits” of the nature center.
In Douglas County, Colorado, the school board spent $ 800,000 in Edgenuity, an online learning platform, in a no-bid “emergency” acquisition. Instead of using local teachers, the platform used pre-recorded classes for students to view. After a period of delays that was “nothing short of chaos,” students were finally able to start using the online platform in late August. Teachers and students were very critical of the program. The grandmother of one student reported that her grandson had four different teachers in five days, while another parent described it as “a bait and switch.” The district stopped using Edgenuity several weeks after the school year, but did not receive a refund.
These and other examples of waste across the country show the difficulties of federal aid programs and the need for greater oversight. Many of these abuses came after the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General warned that the agency necessary take steps “to ensure that programs are not subject to waste, fraud and abuse.”
With students struggling to recover from the pandemic, the nation cannot afford to waste money allocated to education. Unfortunately, the ability of districts to develop a workaround to avoid reporting requirements means that the billions allocated through the three bills are at risk. The abuse of education funds raises serious questions about the extent of waste, fraud, and abuse present in other projects funded through COVID relief grants.
Reports of abuse and mismanagement should provide a stark warning to legislators and policy makers as they prepare to to assign the remainder of the funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and the unspent funds from the other two bills in their 2022 legislative sessions, along with the tens of billions of dollars included in the “human infrastructure” bill that is being considered in Congress. Without proper oversight and planning, the use of federal funds for stadiums, urban sanctuaries, and other wasteful projects may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Ryan Lanier is CAGW State Government Affairs Associate.