California has seen unprecedented amounts of funding over the past three years to help schools cope with the growing list of challenges introduced, or exacerbated, by the pandemic. Close to $40 billion in combined state and federal funds have been allocated to public schools across the state since 2020. Despite this substantial allocation, information about what money is available, and what it can be used to achieve, is largely inaccessible to families and community members. In order to hold school leaders accountable, we must understand the investments that both the California and US government have made in public education.
The majority of financial allocations are included in several installments of relief funds from 3 stimulus packages from the federal government:
CARES: the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (March 2020)
CRRSA: the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (December 2020)
ARP: the American Rescue Plan Act (March 2021)
The CARES Act established almost $40 billion for the Education Stabilization Fund, $3 billion of which was allocated to two major sources of relief funding for states: the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. California has received more money than any other state through multiple installments of ESSER and GEER funds:
Each installment of federal funding has its own spending deadline, and it makes sense that most states are spending the money in the order they received it. States are required to distribute 90% of the funding to local educational agencies (LEAs) and school districts, who then decide how to spend it. The remaining 10% goes toward operating costs of states to administer the funds to LEAs.
The largest amount of money is the ESSER III grant, which was established through the ARP Act and distributed in summer 2021. It is also the installment that comes with the most specific spending requirements: 20% of ESSER III funds must be reserved to address learning loss and $98 million must support efforts to support children and youth experiencing homelessness.
Funding included in the remaining ESSER and GEER grants may be spent on a variety of resources, tools, and programs, but the California Department of Education (CDE) stipulates that they should be used to “address students’ academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs, as well as the opportunity gaps that existed before, and were exacerbated by, the COVID-19 pandemic,” and funds allocated to homeless students should provide youth with “comprehensive, wrap-around services that address needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and allows them to attend school and participate fully in all school activities.”
While the bulk of funding has come from the federal government, California has also made investments at the state level to bolster COVID relief efforts. The 2020-2021 state budget package authorized the Learning Loss Mitigation Funding (LLMF), which appropriates $5.3 billion from three funding sources to support academic achievement: the state’s General Fund (GF), the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), and GEER I (2020). LLMF dollars were distributed to LEAs and school districts to address learning loss, extend instructional time, and address health and safety concerns. Two years later, the 2022-2023 education budget allocated $7.9 billion in one-time funding through the 2027-2028 school year for the Learning Recovery Emergency Block Grant. Within this framework, school districts and LEAs have flexibility to spend this funding in a variety of ways, including changes to instructional time, closing learning gaps, pupil supports, and academic services. Specific information on expenditures and allocations remains unknown, as districts and LEAs are not required to provide information on spending until July 2024.
Advocates for funding accountability have called for greater transparency and reporting requirements for the Learning Recovery Emergency Block Grant. While there has been some movement in securing funding for schools that serve majority unduplicated students, there is still a long way to go. Block Grant funds are not currently being reported in the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) Budget Overview for parents and families, nor are community partners being consulted on how funds can and should be spent. Additionally, there is also no requirement to report progress on the closure of racial achievement gaps, despite this being a main objective of the Block Grant.
What’s more, despite the fact that we recently witnessed the most significant declines ever documented in math scores, and the average student is a third of a year behind in reading, the 2023-2024 state budget includes a $1.6 billion reduction in the Learning Recovery Block Grant, with the intent to “possibly restore” $1.1 billion in three installments in future budgets. As for the money that survived the cuts, there is no requirement to report spending until December 2024, when they will use an upcoming reporting template (that won’t be available until June).
The 2022-2023 budget also included $4.1 billion for a five-year initiative aimed at establishing and advancing community schools. The community school model emphasizes wraparound services that mirror ESSER III recommendations, including mental health care, pediatric appointments and other social programs to students and families in low-income neighborhoods. Community school funding, paired with the Learning Recovery Emergency Block Grant, illustrates the multi-faceted needs of students that are not only academic, and give us direction on how money can be spent in order to invest in students who would benefit the most.
COVID Relief Spending
Amid the continued stream of funds, school district leaders understand that they can justify numerous investments by indicating they are supporting academic achievement, and thus, it is difficult to track whether investments are effective. Analyses of spending reports find that the largest spending categories for each package provide little clarity as to what investments are being made. In our next blog post, we will take a look at available data to see how school districts are actually spending the money, and how to keep school leaders accountable for closing academic achievement gaps.
Nadia Moshtagh Razi is the Director of State and Local Policy at GO Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that amplifies the work of families and their champions to promote and advocate for equitable public education of underserved students in California. She has over a decade of experience in K-12 education as a high school English, African American literature, and AVID teacher. Nadia was also an equity instructional coach supporting K-8 teachers in the Bay Area and has extensive experience advocating for transgender and BIPOC students. Nadia is a former Teach Plus senior teaching policy fellow where she focused on teacher diversity and culturally-affirming, antiracist school environments.