- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2022

American students are struggling even though the government sent billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief money to school districts to offset learning loss, according to a recent study. The study says the federal largesse fell short, failed to target the schools in greatest need and wasn’t tied to policy outcomes.

Analysts at the American Educational Research Association said schools likely need $700 billion to address learning loss, mainly from remote instruction, but received about $189 billion from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund in 2020 and 2021.

The funds, including about $120 billion tucked into President Biden’s massive pandemic relief bill last year, were intended to be used to increase tutoring, offer after-school programs and buy new textbooks, among other measures.

“Despite an extraordinary level of support by the federal government during the pandemic, U.S. schools are still $500 billion short of what’s needed to address unprecedented levels of learning loss,” said Matthew P. Steinberg, an associate professor of education and public policy at George Mason University. “While the investment in [the federal stimulus] was incredible in scale, it pales in comparison to the negative impact on the economy if a generation of children does not recover from what this pandemic has done to them academically.”

Mr. Steinberg wrote the study with Kenneth A. Shores, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Delaware. The study was released Tuesday.

The authors looked at earlier estimates of learning loss, time spent in remote instruction and the cost of increasing student achievement. Their findings coincide with data on declining math and reading scores on standardized tests.

The analysis said federal money, which is still being allocated, hasn’t been targeted properly because it flows along preexisting funding streams that emphasize convenience instead of policy goals.

Although overall funding fell short, researchers said, the government should fine-tune its requirements or offer incentives before spending more so the money goes directly toward remediating learning loss.

“This is much more important than using it, for example, for new facilities construction — such as athletic fields — that have little to do with addressing the academic needs of students,” Mr. Steinberg said.

The COVID-19 pandemic set off a historic experiment in “social distancing” that closed offices, businesses and institutions around the globe. The decision to close many schools and rely on remote learning from home was among the most contentious, and educators and policymakers are grappling with the fallout.

Teachers complained that many students failed to pay attention or lacked the equipment needed for remote instruction, and families struggled to balance parental supervision with work life.

A federal report last month showed that 9-year-olds’ reading and math scores plummeted after the start of the pandemic, particularly among Black students.

The National Center for Education Statistics pointed squarely at remote learning and pandemic shocks in disclosing that average math scores for this age group dropped 7 points while average reading scores declined 5 points from 2020 to 2022.

Thomas Kane, of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, told NPR this year that students in high-poverty areas missed the equivalent of 22 weeks of in-person math instruction during the 2020-2021 school year versus about 13 weeks for students in low-poverty areas, who tended to return to physical classrooms sooner.

Republicans generally pushed for the broad reopening of schools during the pandemic. They noted the impact on students and the fact that COVID-19 did not cause high death rates among children.

Democrats often sympathized with teachers unions that demanded better virus controls before reopening classrooms. That resulted in dramatic standoffs with parents and school districts.

Mr. Biden adopted a tougher tone with unions as relief money trickled out and teachers in some districts refused to reenter classrooms. He also said schools must use some of the federal funding to help students catch up.

“States and school districts have the resources they need, and are required to address the impacts of the pandemic on students’ learning,” the White House said in a March fact sheet.

The analysis released Tuesday said schools need more money and warned about a lack of oversight on spending. 

Analysts said the same problem dogged efforts to bolster learning after the Great Recession. They pointed to a lack of studies on the causal effects between federal funding and learning outcomes.

“In the wake of the Great Recession and COVID-19, the federal government has distributed nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars in fiscal support to states and school districts to offset disruptions to district resources and student learning. Surprisingly, very little empirical research has assessed the impacts of these funds to determine whether they accomplished their purported goals,” they wrote.

Some districts got unequal amounts of relief despite having similar economic situations, the researchers found. Although minority students have had higher rates of remote learning and tend to face more educational obstacles, common federal and state funding streams do not account for race and ethnicity.

Requiring school districts to report to the National Center for Education Statistics on how the funds are spent and publishing that data would help bolster public trust, the researchers wrote.

The researchers said accountability will be crucial if another crisis emerges because the American public might doubt whether taxpayer spending on students is needed.

“Given that future crises are likely, it is imperative that policy and accountability structures are developed to document how expenditures are used so that the public can continue to trust that these emergency relief funds should continue to be made available,” they wrote.

The Washington Times reached out to the U.S. Department of Education for comment on the report.

Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Tuesday questioning whether funds were used for “woke initiatives.”

It cited a Massachusetts district that hired a consultant to “coach” a high school principal on how to use a racial slur during a training session on emotional intelligence for education practitioners “in order to tackle its complexity.”

Emails obtained by the committee suggest the usage still made attendees uncomfortable.

“This activity appears to have nothing to do with COVID-19 mitigation. Moreover, under no circumstances should the American people fund the ‘coaching’ of educators to use racial slurs for any purpose and/or at any time,” Rep. James Comer of Kentucky and Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina wrote. “This is both a waste and a misuse of taxpayer dollars.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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