Over the past year, schools in Washington State have received a historic amount of federal funding to meet the expenses of educating children in the event of a pandemic.
Already, some – about 13% of the roughly $2.6 billion – has gone to schools. In Seattle, 104 new school employees walk the halls, monitor quarantine rooms and take on lunchtime supervisory duties. A few miles south, at Highline Public Schools, each campus now has its own counselor.
At the state level, politicians have used some of the funds to fund laptops and internet for students, and in the form of grants to nonprofits providing services to families.
But there are still questions about how much of these funds will be spent. The U.S. Department of Education has withheld hundreds of millions in aid from Washington until the state can provide a satisfactory plan for spending the latest aid package, worth about $1.7 billion dollars. Experts say the the federal government is seeking greater public transparency about how schools plan to spend the money.
Some school officials are already worried about whether the aid will get them through the rest of the pandemic, as the road to normality seems to be getting longer and longer.
Here’s what we know so far about those dollars and how school districts are spending them.
Historical Funding Levels
Like every other state, Washington received funding for K-12 schools in three packages – named ESSER I, II, III. (ESSER stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, and the three packages combined total nearly $200 billion for schools nationwide.)
The money is intended to flow directly to school districts through a formula that prioritizes those with large populations of students living in poverty. In the Seattle area, for example, the Tukwila School District, where approximately 75% of students are low-income, will receive the equivalent of $6,649 per student. Mercer Island, where only about 3.5% of students are low-income, will receive $263 per student. Some districts will receive nothing at all, and the state has used its share of ESSER funds to partially fill the gaps.
To put those numbers into perspective, in 2018-19, schools in Washington spent an average of $14,213 per student on education.
School districts have a great deal of leeway in how they choose to spend ESSER I and II, although Federal and state officials have discouraged districts from making long-term investments, such as raises or new buildings, with these one-time funds. The third package, ESSER III, is more restrictive; schools must spend 20% of this money on initiatives that help students catch up academically.
Each aid package has a spending deadline, the first of which is next September (ESSER I) and the last (ESSER III) is September 2024.
How the money is spent
Public school districts have spent about $337 million on all aid programs so far — the vast majority coming from ESSER I and II.
Major expense categories include health-related supplies such as personal protective equipment, technology, and salary-related costs; some school systems are paying their employees extra to oversee meal times and contracting to hire more nurses, said TJ Kelly, chief financial officer for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Education Department of State.
Beyond this description, it is difficult to give more details. The states Dashboards showing that expenditures are vague and not comparable between aid programs. Kelly said the agency is working to improve its method of reporting data and will have more to share by November.
“We certainly know there’s a demand for how that money is being spent,” he said.
Washington is one of more than a dozen states, including Arizona, California and Colorado, that have not received federal approval for their applications for funds under ESSER III, the latest aid package that was passed in March and was part of the US bailout. That means about a third of federal money is not yet available to school districts.
Marguerite Roza, a Seattle-based professor of education finance at Georgetown University, said the state’s initial request was “thin” on details compared to other states.
“We’re perplexed by Washington State,” said Roza, whose team reviewed state applications across the country.
Under the law, for example, states are supposed to require school districts to submit detailed spending plans. In other states, like California and Missouri, the state education agency asked school districts to provide detailed descriptions and dollar amounts. But in Washington State, OSPI only required districts to share strategies that they would use to support students’ academic and emotional progress. The deadline for these plans was June.
In its latest round of comments to state officials, the US Department of Education said Washington has not shown it has met this requirement.
In a revised request returned to the federal government last week, state officials said they will ask school districts this fall to certify that they have engaged with their communities and release budgets outlining how districts would spend the ESSER III funds this school year.
They will be made available to the public on OSPI’s website within the next two weeks, said Katy Payne, a spokeswoman for the state agency.
But Roza said that doesn’t meet the entire requirement because funds from the aid program can be used until 2024.
“This … doesn’t solve the biggest problem of all,” said Roza, who reviewed OSPI’s latest draft sent to the Department of Education. “That the national education agency should ask districts to submit a plan outlining how it will use its funds.”
In a statement, Washington State Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal wrote, “These unique and highly flexible funds were intended to meet the emerging needs of districts as they grapple with the effects of the pandemic… Districts are already mobilizing their emergency relief funds differently than budgets. they just submitted for this school year.”
But Roza said school districts are allowed to change their spending projections if their priorities change.
How school districts use the money
Seattle, the largest school district in the state, was allocated a total of $145 million, or about 14% of the district’s annual operating budget. He used some of his money to hire workers to handle coronavirus testing and to monitor school rooms for students who show symptoms of COVID-19. About $35 million is spent to cover the costs of additional employees and programs in the last school year, according to a budget presentation from June.
The SPS has also hired a dozen nurses and social workers and established a district-level COVID-19 response team. JoLynn Berge, chief financial officer of SPS, said the district expects new state funds next year to school counselor positions, and with staff turnover, funding for these other new positions should be manageable.
At Highline Public Schools, Kathryn Peterson’s full-time job is managing what to do with the funds.
Highline has so far spent or allocated about 40% of its ESSER funds on school reopening costs — including health supplies, ventilation and operating a remote learning option, Peterson said. The funds were also used for online counseling for students, a new literacy program and to pay staff for extra time spent at ‘family connection’ meetings where school staff check in with parents. at the start of the school year.
“Principals say they spend hours a day in isolation rooms supervising students with symptoms of COVID-19, said Highline spokeswoman Catherine Carbone Rogers.
The district of 19,000 students has set aside $4 million (about 4.7% of its $84 million in ESSER scholarships) to be spent at the discretion of a community panel including staff and parents. The group is expected to make its recommendations in January.
Like Seattle and many other districts, Highline has yet to spend or claim much of the funds from the latest package. Peterson expects the district to make those calls based on student mental health data and insights from surveys during the pandemic.
Officials there wonder how far the money will go as the pandemic spreads.
“There’s this big influx of dollars, but it’s really temporary, and it’s so swallowed up by the extra costs of the pandemic,” Rogers said. “I’m afraid people think school districts are full of money…for a long time.”
Government spending for COVID-19
OSPI, in consultation with state legislators, has used ESSER III funds to create grant programs for community organizations that work with families and children.
About $8 million will go to school districts to provide kindergarten readiness programs and $15 million to expand behavioral health programs in schools. OSPI has hired nonprofit organizations such as School’s Out Washington and the Association of Washington Cities to help distribute grants for after-school programs and other youth enrichment activities.
It has also set aside funds for school districts that have not received much or any relief money from the federal government’s formula.
But some school districts, like Issaquah, argued that those extra state dollars weren’t enough.
“This is totally unfair and inadequate,” members of the Issaquah School Board wrote to Gov. Jay Inslee and State Superintendent Reykdal this month. According to state figures, Issaquah, a district of 20,000 students, 9 percent of whom live in poverty, will receive $350 per student.