School ‘Rescue’ Dollars Boomerang

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

A third round of government school “emergency relief/rescue” dollars is wending its way to school districts in Pennsylvania and nationwide.

Whether it is the final round of funding related to issues wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen. But there are critically important questions that still envelop such subsidies, conclude scholars at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy.

“Federal money might have the effect of delaying hard decisions and cost-cutting measures until it is spent in its entirety,” say Eric Montarti, research director at the Pittsburgh think tank, and Benjamin Seevers, a research assistant there (in Policy Brief Vol. 22, No. 23).

“Or it might act as a substitute for state and/or local dollars that would have been otherwise expended,” they add.

School districts and charter schools twice previously received money through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, ESSER I and ESSER II. The latest round comes from the American Rescue Plan, dubbed ARP-ESSER.

Compared to ESSER I and II, ARP-ESSER is a higher dollar amount and has a spending period ending in September 2024. It encapsulates many of the previous allowable spending categories of ESSER I and II but requires that 20 percent of the allocation be directed toward “learning loss.” That’s defined as “any specific or general loss of skills or to reversals in academic progress.” It can be the result of summer break, interrupted education, school absence or teaching.

With this being COVID-related federal legislation, the emphasis is on learning affected with schools being shuttered.

“According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the state received close to $5 billion in ARP-ESSER funds,” the think tank scholars note. “The bulk of the money for the 500 school districts and 167 charter schools—$4.5 billion—is distributed under an existing federal formula.

“The ARP statute has what is referred to as ‘state-level reservations’ where specific percentages must be directed toward learning loss, after-school and summer school programs by school districts and charter schools,” Montarti and Seevers say.

That totals $350 million, with the balance going for intermediate units, career technical centers and other educational entities.

Allegheny County’s 43 school districts are to receive $283.6 million. Its 25 charter schools—both brick and mortar and cyber schools —will receive $46.7 million.

The school districts’ allocation range is $108.7 million for Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) to $503,000 for Avonworth School District.  McKeesport Area, Woodland Hills and Penn Hills each will each receive more than $12 million.

Three districts besides Avonworth—Hampton, South Fayette and Upper St. Clair—will receive under $1 million.

The charter schools’ allocation range goes from a high of $8.2 million for the PA Leadership Charter School to $367,205 for the Young Scholars Charter School.

But, as noted at the outset, there likely are unintended consequences of this government “beneficence.”

“It is worth thinking about electronic devices, unused supplies and additional staff,” Montarti and Seevers remind. “What happens to the materials purchased with remote or hybrid learning in mind? Or to staff devoted to social distancing or technology modifications?”

And as the public policy institute previously noted, there were few, if any, layoffs or furloughs of school personnel by school districts. While support staff employment did drop by 3 percent from the 2019-20 to 2020-21 school year, the count for professional employees (teachers, principals and counselors, among them) rose by 0.4 percent.

“If expenses funded by all ESSER dollars are maintained, it might fall to property taxes levied by school districts to provide the revenue,” Montarti and Seevers caution.

Consider it the ever-spinning Boomerang of government “rescue” plans.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy ([email protected]).