On Tuesday at this year’s Education Writers Association (EWA) conference, a series of panels focused on helping reporters decipher the billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief aid that has been going to P-12 schools.
The EWA is a nonprofit organization focused on advancing education coverage.Called “Dollars and Sense: Understanding School Funding,” its series looked at ways to find out how exactly school districts are spending federal dollars from Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER). And in a few years, once that pandemic relief aid runs out, what could happen to schools and students next?
“Best practice says that you don’t use short-term expenditures for long-term programs, but that is what is happening,” said Juan Perez, reporter at Politico, when moderating a panel with Roberto Rodríguez, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education (ED). “Are you prepared for schools to essentially hurtle off a fiscal cliff once this funding dries up?”
Perez referred to how ESSER has been used to develop mental health support programs for students in many school districts. But whether schools can continue such critical programs without ESSER remains unclear.
“There is an opportunity to extend a plan for spending those relief dollars for an additional 18 months, which takes us through March of 2026,” said Rodríguez in response. “So, we are trying to mitigate those challenges around the funding cliff. But it is clear that we have failed to make investments in the underlying system that we need to close opportunity gaps. This is why the administration’s investments are so important.”
Yet several audience members pressed Rodríguez on the lack of detailed public information regarding how school districts and states are specifically using these federal funds.
“Many of us in this room have been trying to track ESSER spending, and we often see that the biggest spending item is ‘other,’” said Matt Barnum, national reporter at Chalkbeat. “Some of us have been vexed with why it is so difficult to see where this money is going.”
While Rodríguez noted that some ESSER tracking tools are available on ED’s website, he added that ED relies on states to collect and report details on school districts. Another audience member followed up, asking Rodríguez if ED plans to audit state and local governments around the ESSER spending plans that they report.
“I can’t speak to that question around random audits,” said Rodríguez. “But I can say that there will be a new approach and a more enhanced system of monitoring these dollars.”
In another session in Tuesday’s series, education finance experts from Georgetown University shared how journalists can mine district spending plans and expenditure data that are available.
Laura Anderson, associate director at Georgetown’s Edunomics Lab, offered questions that reporters can ask districts, including what percentage of ESSER III districts have not spent any of those funds yet (and why). And how much on average have districts spent on salaries with ESSER? Given reports of high teacher turnover, the latter could indicate what schools are doing—or not—to retain teachers.
Fellow panelist Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd at Georgetown, shared tips for reporters on comparing ESSER spending plans accurately and fairly.
“If you’re comparing spending plans across districts within a state, then make sure they have a common template,” said Jordan, who gave Georgia’s template as an example. “If the template is the same, then it’s easier to compare. But if your state doesn’t have a common template, then you’ve got a challenge, and you need to go through each plan.”
Comparing across states poses a similar challenge, added Jordan. But diving into only a few spending categories that appear across state plans could be one key strategy.
As for P-12 issues to watch out for, Anderson spoke of declining enrollment, which started before the pandemic and has only continued since. With fewer students enrolled, districts will have reduced revenue.
“That means they will be doing the same things that they are doing now, but with less money,” said Anderson.
And as higher education faces its own enrollment declines, colleges and P-12 may be staring down similar, pressing problems in the years ahead.
Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at email@example.com.