The federal government’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Rescue Plan has covertly dumped $190 billion into America’s public schools in response to COVID-19. The United States Department of Education states that the ESSER I, II and III grants must be used to prevent, prepare for or respond to the pandemic, including its impact on the social, emotional, mental health-related and academic needs of students.
But the reality is that there is very little guidance for or oversight into how schools can choose to spend the millions of dollars they have been given. If coded correctly, many questionable programs or projects can be ushered into schools without parents even realizing or consenting to them.
It is up to local education agencies to decide how and when to expend the ESSER Funds. Only 20% of the ESSER III grant money has to be spent on learning loss due to COVID-19. None of the earlier funding received by school districts from the ESSER I or II grants stipulates spending on learning loss recovery specifically.
With so many schools opening and dropping COVID-19 restrictions across the country, there is the danger that these funds will get spent on programs that have nothing to do with catching children up to speed and helping them recover all the lost time in the classroom.
Instead, if parents aren’t paying attention, these highly flexible funds are at risk of being used to purchase more of the politically infused, contentious curricula that they are desperately trying to keep out of local schools. In fact, many curriculum companies and educational organizations are overtly capitalizing on these federal funds to increase their sales.
Panorama Education is one of many companies touting their products as an allowable use for ESSER funding. Panorama Education sells survey software to school districts to support social and emotional learning and lessons disproportionately focused on climate change. Savvas Learning Company, formerly Pearson K-12 Learning, has strategically designed online guides to help schools “leverage ESSER funds to implement evidence-based, equity-driven strategies in your district.”
Federal funding requirements state that LEAs must engage in “meaningful consultation” with stakeholders and allow the public to provide input in developing plans for the use of ESSER III funds. Yet, the LEA has the power to define “meaningful” and determine the process and timeline for what stakeholder input and public comment will look like. There is also no requirement for local boards to approve the spending plans or for the Uses of Funds plan to ever be updated from its original posting on the school district website.
Spending strategies can be deemed permissible if the LEA can connect the item to issues resulting from COVID-19. For example, evidence-based practices for learning acceleration, summer enrichment, after-school programming, tutoring and professional development are a few of the vague buckets that can be coded into the 20% of spending set aside for the learning loss requirement. And while the federal funding is not necessarily tied to implementing any COVID-19 mandates, the LEA’s plan must address how it will maintain the health and safety of students, educators and other school staff. Offering a stipend to incentivize students or staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine is an allowable use of ESSER funds.
Isaac School District Governing Board in Phoenix, Arizona, approved an #ItsOurShotIsaac plan for offering financial incentives to staff and students who receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Parents are offered $100 Visa gift cards for each of their vaccinated children. ISD staff members who provide proof of vaccination and are a part of a site or department that achieves an 80% staff vaccination rate are eligible for an additional addendum up to $250.
It may also appear noble that school districts use the funds to hire interventionists and counselors to support social and emotional learning. Yet, we must be aware of the potential fiscal deficits that could arise in future years due to the massive influx of this federal funding. These uses may cause the LEA not to have the budget to continue these activities after the ESSER availability ends.
The bottom line is that parents and taxpayers need to hold the LEAs who have accepted massive federal funding accountable and see to it that the funding is appropriately spent. Right now, the priority needs to be helping students recover precious years lost in the classroom. Any use of ESSER funds to cement political agendas in schools or create unnecessary programs that do little to address student learning loss is not only irresponsible but cruel when you consider just how much students have suffered throughout the past two years.
Amy Carney is the deputy director of Building Education for Students Together, a project of FreedomWorks.