Study: Federal Fiscal Aid Insufficient to Offset Student Learning Loss

Federal fiscal aid given amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been insufficient to entirely make up for the student learning loss that occurred because of the shifts during the health crisis, a recent study found.Dr. Matthew P. SteinbergDr. Matthew P. Steinberg

The study, “Fiscal Federalism and K–12 Education Funding: Policy Lessons from Two Educational Crises,” looks at the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic and the federal fiscal funds provided to help alleviate the losses from the two crises – American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds in 2009 and Elementary and Secondary Schooling Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

Dr. Matthew P. Steinberg, an associate professor of education and public policy at George Mason University and Dr. Kenneth A. Shores, an assistant professor specializing in education policy at the University of Delaware, were the study’s authors. The study itself was published in Educational Researcher, an American Educational Research Association (AERA) journal.

“Though ARRA and ESSER provided unprecedented amounts of federal aid to states and localities, these amounts were likely insufficient to accomplish their policy goals,” the study’s authors wrote. “… Lost revenues from the Great Recession totaled $223 billion whereas ARRA aid was only $50 billion. Estimated costs to offset learning loss accrued during the COVID-19 pandemic vary widely, but plausible estimates exceed $500 billion dollars whereas ESSER funds totaled only $189 billion.”

ESSER funds – totaling nearly $190 billion – had come in three parts via the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 (approximately $13.2 billion); the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act of 2021 ($54.3 billion); and the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021 ($122 billion).

The report presents values ranging from $325 billion all the way up to $1.02 trillion in terms of the monetary amount needed to offset the estimated student learning loss that occurred during 36 weeks of the pandemic.

The study’s authors also observed issues in the distribution of said funds.

“In the case of COVID, the aid was distributed to states and then districts through Title I,” Steinberg said. “What we show ... is that it was largely unrelated or at least uncorrelated to a large extent with the policy goals of the aid. ... In the wake of COVID, the policy goals of the ESSER funds was to go to districts where students were experiencing the greatest declines in learning. And it's unclear if that's the case, largely because you got lots of student learning loss, and even though money flowed through Title I, which is targeted to low-income students ... – certainly they suffered the most in terms of learning loss – but they were not the entirety of students who experienced a shift from in-person to remote instruction that had some adverse consequences for student learning loss."

Another issue with said funding was the lack of detailed, federally mandated, systematic tracking of how the funds were being spent by its recipients, Steinberg said. This poses issues for researchers and the general tax-paying public alike, he said.

Dr. Kenneth A. ShoresDr. Kenneth A. Shores“There's no systematic data collection effort that's characterizing and measuring the use of these funds across the population of schools in the country,” Steinberg said. “... If the public doesn`t know how money is being spent and if districts are not being forthcoming in their plans for the use of these funds, it's a real issue around public confidence. ... If the public can't have confidence that the money is being used by schools in ways that try to address student learning loss, then you could imagine the public being very resistant going forward to future efforts to spend taxpayer dollars and distribute it widely across the U.S. without any, or very limited, transparency and accountability."

The U.S. Department of Education does maintain a website to track recipients of aid such as ESSER funds, but the amount of detail the site provides in terms of how such funds are being used varies.

"In terms of policy, our study suggests that ESSER funds were insufficient to meet the learning needs of students negatively affected by COVID,” Shores said in an email statement. “And though additional funds from the federal government are not forthcoming, it is nevertheless the case that many ESSER funds remain unspent. Our hope is that school and district leaders and parent advocates recognize the magnitude of lost learning and the importance of using these funds towards remediation moving forward."