How Districts Have Spent COVID Relief Funds So Far

In our previous blog post, we took a look at the various funding sources that are available to support California students in their COVID recovery. Ideally, we would have hoped that school districts were quick to capitalize on the abundance of funding in order to address learning recovery, trauma and mental health supports, chronic absenteeism, or adequate credentialing for teachers. However, a look at available data paints a more complicated picture of COVID-relief spending.  

Each federal funding package has a different deadline to spend funds, so a definitive analysis of all spending won’t be possible until the annual report in 2026, after ESSER III funds have expired. But each package also has a deadline to obligate funds, meaning that school districts need to commit to spending plans some months in advance.

Issues arise when it comes to monitoring the allocation of COVID funds within schools, districts/Local Education Agencies (LEAs), and County Offices of Education. In order to meet deadlines, funds are often obligated according to broad spending categories, and there is no centralized state or federal database to show how they actually spent the money. 

What information is available in spending reports does not inspire confidence that funding is being effectively used to address the vast learning disparities in California schools. Notably, the largest spending category for the ESSER I package was the extremely broad “other activities necessary to maintain operations.” 

While some funding has been spent on “instructional materials” and “learning support,” the majority of spending has not been focused on addressing academic performance gaps. The priority of “addressing learning loss” didn’t even rank in the top 4 categories of expenditures until the ESSER II and ESSER III stages. Schools have received an unprecedented influx of funding, and there is research to support the use of strategies that could help mitigate some of educational harm of the pandemic (strategies such as high-dosage or high-impact tutoring), but funding is not always being effectively spent, tracked, or reported. 

When it comes to expenditure amounts, what we do know is that LEAs have been slow to spend funds on learning recovery so far.  Congress required that for the ESSER III funding, at least 20% of the funding be reserved to use evidence-based strategies to  address lost instructional time. A 2022 analysis by the California School Boards Association showed that California districts had spent only one tenth of this segment of funding, and despite proven benefits, only 5% had been spent on tutoring and only 4% was directed to summer learning. By 2023, that number had risen somewhat, but the trend remains.  By the end of March 2023, LEAs overall had only used a third of the money that Congress required to be reserved for interventions that address lost learning, and almost a quarter of LEAs in California had not even touched it. These LEAs include both traditional districts and charter schools. 

California is not alone in this trend. To put these percentages in context, we can look to other states’ pace of spending. As of April 30, the national average percentage of spending all three rounds of ESSER funds was 52%. For instance, Iowa had spent 70%, and Arkansas had spent 69%, while Wisconsin had spent 34% and the District of Columbia had spent only 22%.  California ranks eighth among the states, and slightly above the national average, with 58% of ESSER funds being spent.  

Spending patterns thus far vary greatly by districtEdsource reported in June that “about a fifth of districts had spent 80% or more of their ESSER III funding as of the end of March, and a fifth had spent less than 20%.”  As of that date, Fresno Unified had spent 27% of funds, Oakland Unified 40%, and West Contra Costa Unified 39%. However, of the 20% of funds that must be reserved to address pandemic-related learning setbacks, Fresno Unified had spent 63% of those funds, whereas Oakland Unified had spent 0% and West Contra Costa 0.22%. Allocation and spending information (at a very broad level) for all LEAs can be found here

Given the demonstrated academic needs in both West Contra Costa and Oakland Unified, it is imperative that these districts, and all districts, spend wisely and strategically to address the exacerbation of disparities and the unfinished learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This could involve  implementing high-dosage tutoring or other evidence-based practices for learning recovery and acceleration. 

LEAs have cited varied justifications for lack of spending, including supply chain issues, concerns about using one-time funding for ongoing programs, navigating reporting requirements, and the growing problem of staffing shortages across the state. Whatever the case, California’s system of spending, tracking, and reporting needs to be strengthened in order to achieve financial adequacy, transparency, and accountability. 

Molly Moloney is the Director of Policy and Data for 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. Her work on the “Local Impact Team” supports GO’s local clusters with data reporting and policy campaigns. She previously worked as an elementary educator, a literacy coach, an assessment and compliance administrator, and a research sociologist focused on youth issues.

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