by Dr. Robert Luebke
Senior Fellow, Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Six billion dollars — remember that number. The North Carolina Pandemic Recovery Office says that’s how much money our state has received for K-12 Covid-19 relief via the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Act (ESSER). About $3.6 billion of that amount (60%) is part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which was approved by the Congress and signed by Pres. Joe Biden last year.
That’s a lot of money, but it came with surprisingly few rules. According to the legislation, 10% of the funds must be distributed to the state education agency, and the other 90% must be distributed to school districts. In addition, at least 20% of the money school districts receive must be dedicated to redressing learning loss.
The U.S. Department of Education informed states and local education agencies that ESSER funds could be used to cover a variety of Covid-related needs. Acceptable expenditures range from coordinating preparedness and response efforts with state, local, and federal entities to “other activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in the LEA [local education agency] and continuing to employ existing staff of the LEA.”
And therein is the problem. While federal grants can be used to help mitigate or respond to the pandemic and its impact, the federal government provides little oversight of how schools choose to spend Covid relief money. Even worse, it provides no requirement to demonstrate those funds are accomplishing their intended purpose.
ProPublica and RealClear Policy have pointed out numerous examples of schools misspending Covid relief funds, including new running tracks and bleachers. Last December, a state audit report concluded that the North Carolina Pandemic Recovery Office (NCPRO) — the office that monitors and administers Covid funding in North Carolina — potentially misspent federal Covid relief money because officials failed to show how more than $3 billion in funding was being used or whether the programs that received Covid funds were achieving their desired goals.
The NCPRO web site is chock-full of useful information on federal funds. A close look at the site makes it apparent that, while the office does provide an accounting of what amount is spent, it provides no information on how it was spent. The question of whether the funding accomplished its intended purpose is left unanswered.
This lack of accountability is not acceptable to parents, taxpayers, or policymakers. However, there are helpful steps North Carolina’s policymakers and parents can take to ensure all $6 billion in Covid funding is properly used. Let’s review three of them.
To receive Covid funds, states and local school districts had to develop plans detailing how they would spend the funds. An overview of federal guidelines for ESSER funds can be found here, and North Carolina’s plans for the funds can be found here. LEA plans can be accessed here. Remember, plans only detail how the LEA intends to spend the money. Plans are not binding or incapable of being adjusted as needed. Still, they do provide priorities for the state and LEAs and a likely map for how to get there.
The N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) tracks Covid money to school districts and individual schools in three ways:
Such data are helpful, but there are limitations. LEA data are not reported at the school level, which makes it difficult to assess if individual schools are using resources effectively or meeting the goal that at least 20% of funds must be dedicated to alleviating learning loss.
North Carolina public records law (Chapter 132 of the North Carolina General Statutes) holds that records produced by any government agency, law enforcement agency, or affiliate of a government agency are presumed to be public unless otherwise stated. District and charter schools are public entities; therefore, they are subject to public records laws. Investigative organizations like ProPublica and RealClear Investigations have shown how public records and a little determination can illuminate how public money is spent.
North Carolina received $6 billion in Covid relief funds. Has the money been spent wisely? Moore County used Covid funds to install two new running tracks and gym lockers. Three separate audits have shown that North Carolina used Covid funds with no mechanisms in place to determine if the programs accomplished their stated goals (see here, here, and here).
It’s not enough to simply track the amount of money being spent. Measures for success are critical to evaluate whether the spending had its desired impact. Until those metrics are developed, parents and policymakers have other ways to actively monitor how Covid money is being spent. These efforts can do much to ensure funding is used to meet the challenges of the pandemic and ensure academic progress. It’s an effort we cannot begin too early.