COVID relief aid and district spending

A July 11 webinar examining how districts are using COVID relief funding featured CSBA Senior Director of Research and Policy Development Mary Briggs  in a panel discussion. The webinar, hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), accompanied its new report, District Spending of One-Time Funds for Educational Recovery, which looked at how local educational agencies are spending the $60 billion in one-time funding allocated for education recovery, roughly evenly divided between federal (47 percent, or $28.4 billion) and state (53 percent, or $32 billion) sources.

Funding for recovery has largely been allocated to districts based on their shares of low-income students. However, this allocation does not necessarily mirror student need as measured by learning loss, according to PPIC Research Fellow Julien Lafortune. The report studies how recovery funding targets student need — defined in a number of ways — as well as if districts’ spending decisions will promote sustained recovery even after federal and state recovery funding ends.

Following the pandemic and school closures, test scores fell dramatically across all grades. Lafortune put this into perspective, noting that typical 11th graders are performing at an eighth-grade level and eighth graders are performing at a sixth-grade level. “What this means is that funds are better suited in some sense to address prior achievement needs rather than learning losses, per se, and that’s because the losses were widespread across districts and varying socioeconomic and demographic conditions,” he said.

PPIC researchers’ findings on how LEA spending changed over time reflected findings from CSBA’s own analysis of spending patterns by its Research and Education Policy Development Department. Funding packages with the earliest deadlines were primarily used for technology, health and safety measures, while funding from later packages is being dedicated toward more academic interventions and social-emotional and mental wellness supports.

Sweetwater Union High School District Superintendent Moisés Aguirre said those patterns closely matched what has happened in his district, focusing first on access to devices and internet. “As different phases of this pandemic evolved, we were constantly in the mode of adjustment, review, assessment and response in a rapid-fire cycle,” Aguirre said. “The initial phase was making sure we had the infrastructure, and the subsequent phases are making sure we have supports in place for students.”

Aguirre explained it takes a deep level of commitment from staff to address the plethora of issues arisen by the pandemic. Key partnerships are helping the district move forward and integrate academic and social-emotional learning. “They are part and parcel of educating our next generation of learners,” he said.

Briggs spoke to how the pandemic unearthed for the casual education observer just how under-resourced public schools have been. “The scope and scale of the pandemic’s impact highlighted for the public and legislators that many of those needs we’ve seen highlighted — like mental health or inequities that predated the pandemic — had been under-resourced for decades,” she said. “We know that the recovery period will outlast the funding and we are learning along the way what kinds of things we want to continue moving forward.”

Panelists discussed the importance of engagement and connections to the school community in aiding in improving attendance and learning recovery. This was a poignant point emphasized by El Dorado County Office of Education Superintendent Ed Manansala, whose county was hit by the pandemic in 2020, the Caldor Fire in 2021 and the Mosquito Fire in 2022. “A lesson that we learned is that students and educators truly value community, a sense of belonging and purpose,” Manansala said. “There’s a wake of challenges that we are dealing with as a result of these last three years. One-time dollars made a difference for us. Fortunately, we’ve seen some steady gains in reading and ELA, but mathematics is where we see our greatest challenges.”

Both Sweetwater Union HSD and El Dorado COE have added wellness centers to some campuses and have a focus on building caring student-staff relationships.

“While educators have thought for a long time about the holistic approach and its need, we as a state are still struggling to build the infrastructure that fosters this way of supporting students,” CSBA’s Briggs said. “The pandemic elevated that and created a greater sense of urgency and has given us an opportunity to build on investments already made in school climates, like restorative practices, which are heavily dependent on relationships. I think there are some encouraging signs about the system shifting in this direction.”

Panelists spoke about how they are using COVID relief aid in strategic ways, knowing it is one-time funding. “For us, this funding offered a bridge to help us get passed the initial phases of the pandemic, but we were also keenly aware of the negative impacts when it runs out,” Aguirre said. The district made sure not to use unsustainable funding for staff positions.

Panelists also noted the return of funding for categorical programs, a mechanism that was largely replaced by the Local Control Funding Formula, which emphasizes local decision making by those who know their community and student needs best. Aguirre spoke about the difficulties of tracking and reporting requirements for the different spending packages, saying that allowing local flexibility through LCFF would allow funds to be used where they are most needed.

Briggs noted that while the federal funds were flexible, they also required reporting in different ways. “The challenge is when you create new categorical programs on top of existing ones with different reporting requirements – it’s the cumulative impact that really makes the difference. And it’s a particular burden for our smaller districts that don’t have a huge administrative staff to do all the different reporting. If we want districts to be strategic and braid funds, additional support is needed to do that effectively.”

Briggs pointed out the disconnect between the public perception of schools being “flooded with unprecedented funding” versus the reality of the situation. “We can’t see these funds in a vacuum,” she said. “At the same time we are making decisions about how to use one-time funding to support things like staffing and providing new services, declining enrollment is a big concern, as are the economic conditions impacting Prop 98. Understanding that context is important when talking about the narrative of these investments — it really impacts local decision-makers’ ability to plan strategically.”

Watch the full webinar: