Largest Investment in U.S. Education: The $190 Billion Pandemic Fund on Student Learning And School Budgets

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the education sector, prompting the U.S. government to allocate an unprecedented $190 billion to counter the pandemic’s effect on student learning.

This funding, known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, was released in three tranches beginning in 2020, with the most recent $122 billion needing to be committed by September 2024.

The Impact Of The Pandemic On Education

Students were among the most affected when COVID-19 struck. Schools closed, classes transitioned online, and teachers faced overwhelming challenges. The $190 billion ESSER funding was aimed at addressing these issues.

An analysis by The Associated Press and Stanford University revealed an alarming disappearance of students from U.S. public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. An estimated 230,000 students in 21 states could not be accounted for.

These students did not move out of state, nor did they sign up for private school or homeschooling, according to publicly available data. In essence, they are “missing.” The $190 billion ESSER funding was designated to help address such issues.

The study highlighted that public school enrollment plummeted during the pandemic. In the 21 states where data was available, enrollment dropped by about 700,000 students between the 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 school years.

Understanding The Shifts In Student Enrollment

Some of these students enrolled in private schools, resulting in an enrollment growth of about 103,000. However, a much larger group switched to homeschooling, which surged by around 184,000.

It was also noted that some families moved out of state, accounting for some of the enrollment decline. Additionally, birth rates in some states are falling, leading to a drop of about 183,000 in the school-age population in the states studied, according to census estimates.

Addressing The Long-Term Impacts

The analysis also suggests a need to understand more about the children who aren’t in school and how that will affect their development. Over months of reporting, AP found that students and families are avoiding school for a variety of reasons, ranging from lingering fear of COVID-19 to homelessness or even having left the country.

The true tally of missing students is likely much larger, as many students who are absent from class are still officially on school rosters, making it more challenging to accurately count the number of missing students.

Some couldn’t study online and found jobs instead, while others slid into depression. During the prolonged online learning, some students fell so far behind developmentally and academically that they no longer knew how to behave or learn at school.

Moreover, there’s a growing concern for students who may have dropped out of school or missed out on the basics of reading and school routines in kindergarten and first grade. These are students who need help re-entering school, work, and everyday life.

How Was The Funding Spent?

The relief money, part of the total $190 billion assigned, was allocated to fund initiatives like summer school, tutoring for at-risk students, hiring new teachers, and upgrading air conditioning and heating systems to prepare schools for reopening. However, the expenditure varied widely between districts due to a few restrictions imposed by Congress.

According to the Education Stabilization Fund, supported by the U.S. Department of Education, states and school districts reported spending nearly $3.7 billion of the $190 billion in federal COVID-recovery funding in July 2023. This brought the total expenditures to over $113 billion, or 59.6 percent of the ESSER funds. As of June 2023, approximately 58% of the ESSER funds had been consumed, with spending rates varying significantly by state.

The Future Of School Budgets

Pandemic aid, inclusive of the $190 billion ESSER funding, marks a significant increase, being more than four times what the federal government typically spends on schools annually. According to recent data from FutureEd, the spending pace has slightly slowed compared to previous months.

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Districts have approximately $76 billion remaining from the total $190 billion to utilize before the September 2024 deadline. This total was allocated in three rounds of Congressional appropriations.

FutureEd’s analysis reveals that spending is inconsistent across states. Four states—Arkansas, Iowa, Washington, and Oklahoma—have expended more than 70 percent of their ESSER allotments. Additionally, 17 other states have spent more than three-fifths of their allotments, and all but 10 states have used more than half of their allotments.

As schools strategize to optimally use the remaining funds, they confront the challenge of catering to students who fell behind during the pandemic and those who have not returned to school. The $190 billion, which incorporates the $122 billion allocated in the most recent tranche, signifies an unprecedented investment in education.

But, the task of fully capitalizing on it by the September 2024 deadline remains a formidable challenge. The pandemic has presented an extraordinary challenge for schools, and the investment in relief funding was a significant response.

However, how the funds were used and the future of school budgets once this funding runs out are complex issues that require further exploration and understanding.

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This article was produced by TPR Teaching.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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