The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant and lasting impact on tens of millions of students across the nation. According to a July 21, 2021, McKinsey and Company report, students lost on average five months of math and four months of reading, which will lead to lower lifetime income of at least $49,000, and reduced annual economic growth of at least $128 billion.
Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the December 2020 COVID package, and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), Congress approved $190.5 billion in aid to school districts. Notably, the entire Department of Education budgets for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 were $72.7 billion and $73.6 billion, respectively. The funds from each bill are being distributed in accordance with Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In an effort to address the “unfinished learning” cited by McKinsey, federal guidelines require local education agencies to allocate at least 20 percent of the $122.7 billion provided in ARPA for learning recovery.
Given the serious consequences of the pandemic on both students and the economy, every penny of these funds must be spent effectively and efficiently. But the massive increase in available funds and insufficient oversight has led to many school districts throwing money at projects unrelated to recovering from the pandemic, including sports facilities and an urban bird sanctuary.
In one of the most stunning examples of relief fund abuse, the Whitewater, Wis., school board voted to allocate 80 percent of its $2 million Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grant toward the construction of synthetic turf fields for football, baseball, and softball. When asked why the funds should be used for athletic fields instead of educational projects, Whitewater High School Athletic Director Justin Crandall told the school board that he did not envision the district as one “that would go to a referendum for turf fields.” Rather than put Crandall’s theory to the test, the school board decided instead to bill the American people for the projects.
In South Texas, the McAllen Independent School District Board of Trustees allotted $4 million in ESSER relief funds to facilitate the expansion of the city-owned Quinta Mazatlan nature center. Although the district cited the “rare opportunity” provided by “an authentic science lab right here in our backyard,” the proposal received heavy criticism from district parents. One parent, Tory Guerra, rightfully questioned how the sanctuary was related to student recovery. Because the project won’t be completed until 2024, she observed, “half the kids won’t even get to reap the benefit” of the nature center.
In Douglas County, Colo., the school board spent $800,000 on Edgenuity, an online learning platform, in a no-bid “emergency” procurement. Rather than use local teachers, the platform utilized pre-recorded classes for students to watch. After a period of delays that was “nothing short of chaos,” students were finally able to begin using the online platform at the end of August. Teachers and students were highly critical of the program. One student’s grandmother reported that her grandchild had four different teachers in five days, while another parent described it as “a bait-and-switch.” The district stopped using Edgenuity several weeks into the school year but did not receive a refund.
These and other examples of waste across the country show the pitfalls of federal relief programs and the need for greater oversight. Many of these abuses came after the Department of Education Office of Inspector General warned that the agency needed to take steps “to ensure that the programs are not subject to waste, fraud, and abuse.”
With students struggling to recover from the pandemic, the nation cannot afford to waste any of the money allocated for education. Unfortunately, the ability of districts to develop a work-around to avoid reporting requirements means that billions allocated through the three bills are at risk. The abuse of education funds raises serious questions about the scope of waste, fraud, and abuse present in other projects funded through COVID relief grants.
The reports of abuse and mismanagement should provide a stark warning to legislators and policymakers as they prepare to allocate the remainder of the American Rescue Plan Act funds and unspent funds from the two other bills in their 2022 legislative sessions, along with the tens of billions of dollars included in the “human infrastructure” bill being considered in Congress. Without proper oversight and planning, the use of federal funds for stadiums, urban sanctuaries, and other wasteful projects may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Ryan Lanier is government affairs associate for CAGW state.