by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Decades-low eighth-grade reading and math scores are no reason to be discouraged, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Wednesday, because the Biden administration’s “historic” COVID-era school spending is poised to turn the tide. In many districts, a large portion of those funds have already been spent on lucrative staff bonuses.
A National Assessment of Educational Progress report published Wednesday found that math and reading scores among U.S. 13-year-olds are at their lowest levels in decades. Cardona responded to those findings by praising “positive results” in student achievement, arguing that the “historic investments and resources” provided by President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan would “reverse the damage.” In school districts across the country, however, a large portion of those funds did not go to more tutoring or new school materials. Instead, they funded bonuses for teachers and administrators.
In North Carolina, for example, the Wake County Public School System from March 2020 to April 2023 spent 78.5 percent of its total pandemic relief funding on salaries and employee benefits, according to the district. Chicago Public Schools—a district where union teachers repeatedly refused to return to the classroom during COVID—similarly spent 77 percent of its pandemic money on staff bonuses, salaries, and benefits. In Tennessee, meanwhile, the state’s comptroller found that a district funneled nearly $28,000 to one administrator alone. And in Nebraska, Lincoln Public Schools attempted to use COVID relief dollars to issue across-the-board teacher bonuses, but the state’s Department of Education said no.
The use of so-called emergency COVID funds to pay for five-figure staff bonuses reflects the stark divide between Republicans and Democrats on education policy. Democrats generally balk at school choice, shooting down taxpayer funding for charter schools in favor of additional public school spending. For Republicans, that spending is already at an all-time high with little to show for it. …