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Making the Most of Federal Dollars for Post-Pandemic Learning Recovery

Many school districts still have a lot of money that could be spent on effective long-term interventions. States should help them build federal dollars into their budgets for years to come.

Students in COVID masks
According to the national 2024 Education Recovery Scorecard, millions of kids will need two, three and even four years to get back to pre-pandemic learning levels. (Shutterstock)
We’re at an inflection point in the race to combat pandemic-related learning loss, and the goal of every school district in America should be to spend smart, not fast. States have a vital role in enabling them to do so.

As of the start of the 2023-2024 school year, almost 9 in 10 districts planned to spend down their federal COVID-19 relief money by this September, rather than request an extension. That could be a mistake for districts that want to prioritize learning recovery. According to Burbio, a company tracking federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) spending, roughly $40 billion of ESSER funds remain unspent, with more than 2,700 school districts having at least 40 percent of these funds in hand at the start of 2024.

Guidance issued in January by the U.S. Department of Education invites state education agencies to apply for a “liquidation extension,” giving districts a chance to draw out their use of federal dollars for interventions such as high-dosage tutoring and summer school that are proven to boost student achievement.

Post-pandemic learning recovery is not happening nearly fast enough, despite the hard work of teachers and schools. According to the national 2024 Education Recovery Scorecard, millions of kids will need two, three and even four years to get back to 2019 learning levels. And the lowest-income students are well behind even the unacceptable pre-pandemic status quo.

It’s clear now that these challenges are long term, which means it is more important than ever to scale proven programs for kids with the highest needs — and to do it in a way that creates lasting solutions while supporting teachers with more resources to meet those needs.

Strategies like high-dosage tutoring can help students make up months of lost learning in a single school year, but can cost between $1,000 and $3,000 per student. ESSER funding can help create a bridge to recurring funding for such proven strategies, such as by tapping the federal Title I program that supports education initiatives for economically disadvantaged children.

“There are some huge opportunities here as we're drafting off ESSER,” Melissa Junge, co-founder of the Federal Education Group, said during a January panel on state and federal policy convened by our organization, Accelerate. “Title I is the largest K-12 program that goes [to districts] for low-income schools to help struggling students. It's an incredibly flexible program.” And as Chad Aldeman writes for EduProgress, states can even set aside 3 percent of their Title I funds for high-dosage tutoring by their districts.

But without states stepping up, there is a risk that districts will spend their remaining ESSER funds on shorter-term goals that will not help make a meaningful dent in learning loss, or close opportunity gaps.

As districts begin looking for ways to braid funding streams to sustain learning recovery efforts over the long term, getting an extension to spend down federal dollars could help them bridge the gap until fiscal year 2026.

Districts that intend to take advantage of the extension must sign contract extensions with tutoring providers no later than Sept. 30. They also need to be aware that some state education agencies require prior approval of funds before contracts can be finalized, which could cause delays.

This is where states can make things easier by providing guidance and incentives for districts to spend on evidence-backed interventions. For example, our state partners in Arkansas are issuing guidance to districts outlining which interventions and providers qualify as high-dosage tutoring. In Louisiana, state legislators are working to pass bills that codify best practices to help districts shift to effective long-term strategies.

To maximize the uptake and effectiveness of ESSER spending and reduce the administrative burden on districts, state policymakers and education administrators should consider three steps:

• Set up statewide agreements with one or more tutoring vendors and invite districts to buy into them using their remaining COVID-19 relief funds. Creating an “umbrella contract” would prevent school districts from having to draft individual contract extensions.

• Evaluate existing procurement rules and create clear timelines and processes for districts to buy into the state contract. Lowering barriers for school districts to ask for extensions makes the option more appealing.

• Consider adjusting rules and statutes to accommodate spending extension requests. For example, if existing procurement rules inhibit districts’ ability to sign contract extensions by the September deadline, legislatures should act quickly to remove such snags.

Fully reversing pandemic learning loss will require a unified effort on the part of educators at every level. States can and should make it easier for districts to strategically build federal dollars into their budgets for years to come so that students can continue to access the individualized support they need to thrive.

Narric Rome is the managing director for federal and state policy for Accelerate, a national nonprofit that serves as a hub for evidence-based academic interventions.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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