States Scramble to Disburse K-12 Relief Funds Ahead of Deadline

States that are facing delays in allocating billions of dollars in coronavirus-relief funds meant for schools have until Friday to provide an explanation to the Education Department.

U.S. News | by Lauren Camera | April 22, 2021

States that are having a difficult time disbursing to school districts hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid from the most recent coronavirus relief package are running up against a Friday deadline to explain to the Education Department why that’s the case.

States have 60 days, or until May 24, to disburse all the funding they received for K-12 schools from the Biden administration’s American Recovery Plan – roughly $81 billion that’s been released so far to help them reopen for in-person learning this school year and close academic, social and emotional gaps exacerbated by the remote learning during the pandemic.

But if they can’t allocate the funds within that timeframe – many states require approval from state boards of education, for example, before they can release such funding or are running into other obstacles – then states must provide an explanation to the Education Department within 30 days of receiving its funds.

That 30-day window comes to an end Friday.

“Every child deserves an opportunity to hear their name being spoken in the classroom this year,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement to U.S. News. “As our nation heals and recovers from the pandemic, our decisions and actions will impact generations of learners. Our inaction will too.”

“States must act with urgency to ensure American Rescue Plan resources reach districts and help all students return safely to in-person learning.”

From the Education Department’s perspective, the process and timeline reflect the urgency of allocating the funds so that districts have the resources they need to reopen safely, Cardona wrote in a letter sent to states Thursday morning.

“The Department has emphasized the sense of urgency with which State educational agencies (SEAs) and school districts should plan to thoughtfully expend these funds to safely return to and maximize in-person instruction as expeditiously as possible this spring, sustain the safe operation of schools, and address the significant needs of students,” he wrote in the letter obtained by U.S. News.

The department doesn’t yet have a clear understanding of how many states are in this situation, according to a department spokeswoman. But the concern comes as others mount over the ability of school districts to effectively use and successfully manage the windfall of aid coming their way.

“I’m worried because districts are reaching out to us, and districts are not set up to be successful stewards of these funds,” says Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, where she focuses on districts making complex education finance decisions.[ 

“It’s such a big chunk of money,” she says. “It came in three successive tranches, and that’s three separate supplemental budgets for districts to create when they normally create only one in a year. They don’t have the capacity to do that. And then they’re all still working from home and they are overwhelmed with minute-to-minute contract negotiations to try to get their schools open, and they’ll do that all over again all summer long into the fall.”

Roza says her inbox has exploded over the last month with pleas for help from district federal directors, including one from a large urban school district that used to oversee $150 million and now oversees roughly $900 million.

“We’re watching districts right now,” she says. “They’ve got to figure out how to move money quickly, and I’m worried about the financial management part of this.”

Moreover, she says, states are having a difficult time advising school districts on how to spend the money because of the varying levels of aid each is set to receive – so much so that for some districts the funding isn’t enough to run a summer camp, but for others, running a summer camp will barely make a dent in the funding. And the vendors are circling.

“I don’t blame the districts,” Roza says. “It’s not a blame thing at all. We just asked them to do something that they’re not set up to do really well.”

Image: Stock image.

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