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Many California districts yet to spend federal Covid relief despite deep, widespread learning loss

Nearly two-thirds of total unused $13.5 billion must be spent by fall of 2024

California school districts so far have used only a third of the $2.7 billion that the federal government set aside to address the well-documented learning setbacks caused by Covid, state data show.


Nearly a quarter of school districts and charter schools had spent none of the money that Congress said should be put toward tutoring, after-school and summer programs, additional school hours or days to the school year, and other interventions to address lost learning; 242 districts and charter schools had spent all of it, as of March 31, the latest available information, an EdSource analysis found.


EdSource found that about a fifth of districts had spent 80% or more of their ESSER III funding as of the end of March, and a fifth had spent less than 20%.


But the pace of spending has been picking up, with the deadline for districts to spend $13.5 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds — commonly referred to as ESSER III funds — a year and a half away. The state was allocated a total of $23.4 billion over three installments, the most of any state.


Total learning recovery spending so far made up more than a third of the ESSER III funding, a higher share than the 20% Congress had mandated, according to a new analysis of California spending by FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.


That spending includes at least $303 million on summer learning, after-school and extended-time programs and $74 million for tutoring, which experts have identified as the most effective strategy for learning acceleration if done intensively during school and in small groups.

 

For district breakdowns

Go here for how much ESSER III funding every district and charter school received and so far has spent.

 

The FutureEd study found that 19% of districts and charter schools had invested in tutoring, fewer than the 23% whose plans had earmarked money for tutoring. FutureEd reviewed more than 600 district plans. The study notes that some districts could have first used other sources of state aid, including the $4 billion Expanded Learning Opportunities Program.


While providing no examples, Mary Briggs, the California School Boards Association’s senior director of research and education policy development, said that’s what many districts did, based on her discussions with administrators. And she cautioned that the state’s reports captured only money that has “gone out the door” and only included the last but largest portion of the ESSER funding.


“We hear that districts have earmarked dollars at a much higher rate,” which would not be accounted for in the latest state data, she said.


California ranks eighth in the states in the rate of spending all three rounds of federal Covid aid. As of April 30, it has spent 58% of the $23.4 billion it had received since the spring of 2020, according to FutureEd data. The national average was 52.3%. Four states had spent more than 60%, led by Iowa at 70%; four states and Washington, D.C., had spent under 40%. Nationwide, more than 99% of the ESSER I funding has been spent and 76% of ESSER II, which must be obligated by September 2023.


Spending on mental health

FutureEd found that spending on supporting students’ mental health had increased more than other areas, from $24 million in late 2021 to $66 million most recently.


Los Banos Unified, 60 miles east of San Jose, spent $8.9 million, nearly three-quarters of its expenditures so far, on mental health assistance, the report said. About 216 districts and charter schools purchased social-emotional learning curricula.


Of the ESSER III district and charter schools spending plans studied, 44% said they would utilize psychologists and mental health professionals. Briggs told FutureEd that many districts relied on contract workers, or like Los Angles County, telehealth programs, rather than make long-term commitments with one-time funding.


Passed in 2021, ESSER III, part of what is also known as the American Rescue Plan, is the final and last batch of the $23.4 billion in federal Covid assistance, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund.


School districts and charter schools had spent 37% — $5 billion of the $13.5 billion — of ESSER III through March 31. That means districts must commit an average of more than $1.5 billion every three months by Sept. 30, 2024, or risk losing it. Jordan and Briggs said that should be doable, although the spending has varied widely among districts. Districts’ funding levels were based on Title I eligibility, tied to student poverty rates.


FutureEd found that San Francisco Unified, which is facing a budget deficit, has spent 74% of its allocated $94 million on a broad category covering maintaining existing services and “continuing the employment of their existing staff.”


Long Beach Unified, the state’s fourth-largest district, has spent only 5% of its $212 million allotment, although public information director Chris Eftychiou noted the district’s master plan intentionally called for using state and federal Covid money with earlier deadlines first and backloading ESSER III money for modernization projects, playground equipment and the remaining installment of its student success initiative over the next 15 months.


While 20% of the total allocation must be spent on learning recovery, districts have great discretion with the remaining 80%. Besides mental health supports and counseling, many have put the money toward more staffing, technology and ventilation systems to prevent the spread of future pandemics.


West Contra Costa Unified has used $9.5 million, or nearly half of its total expenditures so far, on technology. One-quarter of California’s local education agencies made heating, ventilation and air-conditioning investments through March, FutureEd reported. A third of districts and charter schools have spent on other facilities repairs, about the same committed to that use in their plans.


Other districts have used the one-time funding for Covid bonuses and future raises for staff and teachers and ongoing expenses to make up for declining enrollments.


At the school board meeting Tuesday, Los Angeles Unified administrators said that $559 million of the $926 million in remaining ESSER III money would go toward staff recruitment and retention, which officials said reflects the pay increases and other costs the district negotiated earlier this year with staff unions.


Difficulty tracking some expenses

For its analysis, FutureEd studied the quarterly spending reports on the state’s ESSER III spending page, interviewed local administrators and compared expenditures with the 625 spending plans that districts wrote as an addendum to their Local Control and Accountability Plans two years ago.


“We found both encouraging trends and cause for concern,” the analysis said.


The state’s quarterly reports that districts must fill out break down spending into 29 categories, more than most states. But it’s still often difficult to know how districts are spending the money because some of the catch-all spending categories are broad, FutureEd, wrote in its analysis. These include “maintain operations” and “other authorized activities” that included $1 billion of the $5 billion that districts spent so far. The state likely will not publish the more detailed final annual report for spending until the spring of 2026.


“The opacity of the state’s ESSER reporting system makes the extent of local agencies’ use of ESSER monies to buttress their operating budgets rather than support students’ pandemic recovery nearly impossible to know,” Phyllis Jordan, the primary author, wrote.


Some staffing costs, like tutoring or extended time expenditures are spelled out, but FutureEd said no specific categories capture bonuses or professional development for teachers and support personnel that are priorities in many districts’ ESSER III plans.


Malia Vella, a deputy superintendent of California Department of Education, said the state has imposed reporting and accountability measures beyond the federal requirements.

These include making districts’ quarterly spending reports available on the state’s ESSER III website and requiring districts to write spending plans after soliciting public suggestions. If spending decisions change, districts must modify the plans, she said. The reporting requirements apply to the 1,751 districts, charter schools and county offices of education allocated the federal funds.


“We take misspending seriously” in randomly monitoring district plans, she said. “Where discrepancies exist, we will flag them.”



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