Education Funding

The COVID School-Relief Funds You Might Not Know About, Explained

By Mark Lieberman — August 04, 2022 6 min read
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Most of the scrutiny on federal funding that’s gone to schools to cope with the pandemic has focused on the three rounds of emergency aid that districts received from COVID relief packages passed in 2020 and 2021.

Relief funds for districts were allocated through the federal Title I formula, which aims to direct aid to high-need students. But the first two of those packages also included a smaller, though substantial, pot of additional funds that’s been largely overlooked: State governors received $7 billion to spend on K-12 and higher education however they saw fit.

Those funds in a handful of states remain to be spent or committed to particular items. A federal watchdog recently issued a scathing report on one state that didn’t spend the money according to the law. And the impact of governors’ education spending initiatives isn’t yet clear.

The deadline for using these funds, meanwhile, is fast approaching. Districts and other education institutions that received funds from governors’ March 2020 allocations must “obligate,” or commit to a particular item, all of the money by Sept. 30, less than two months from now. The remainder of the governors’ education funds must be obligated by Sept. 30, 2023.

Here’s a quick primer on where things stand with relief funds sent to state governors for education spending during the pandemic.

What’s the name of the funding program for governors’ education spending?

It’s called the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, or GEER for short. The program was designed to give states flexibility over how to target additional aid for education where needed during the early months of the COVID-19 crisis, as opposed to the more-rigid Title I formula used to allocate other COVID relief funds for schools.

How much money did governors get to use at their discretion, and when?

Governors received $3 billion in GEER funds from the first COVID relief package, passed by Congress in March 2020. That set of funds is known as GEER I.

Then, as part of the second COVID relief package in December 2020, they received another $4 billion, including $2.75 billion reserved for private K-12 schools. That set is known as GEER II.

They did not receive any additional GEER funds from the third COVID relief package, the American Rescue Plan, which passed in March 2021.

Governors had one year from receiving the GEER funds to allocate them to K-12 districts and other education institutions, or set up grant programs.

How can I track states’ GEER spending?

There is no database that shows a line-by-line breakdown of how governors allocated GEER funds. There are, however, several GEER trackers that provide some detail on what states have done.

The U.S. Department of Education is publicly tracking how much each state has spent in GEER funds, and who received grants from GEER-funded initiatives.

A database from the Hunt Institute, an education research and policy nonprofit affiliated with Duke University, includes governors’ plans for spending their GEER funds.

The National Conference of State Legislatures breaks down the proportion of each state’s GEER I allocation that went to K-12, higher education, and preschool. The organization does not have a tracker for the second round of GEER funding.

How much GEER funding went to K-12 specifically?

Ten states—including Delaware, New York, and Wisconsin—devoted all of their GEER I funds to K-12 education. As of January 2021, 46 states had committed $1.7 billion—a little more than half of this earliest round of GEER money—to K-12 education, according to the NCSL tracker.

Similar tracking for GEER II hasn’t appeared yet.

How exactly have governors spent GEER money on K-12?

States have taken a variety of approaches to spending GEER funds.

Some, like Alaska, allocated GEER money to all districts, supplementing the federal COVID relief funds they received through Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief, or ESSER.

Wisconsin directed GEER funds to districts with large populations of disadvantaged students. Connecticut allowed districts to apply for the supplemental funds, with priority going to high-need districts. New York cut state aid and used GEER and ESSER funds to make up the difference.

Broadband connectivity and technology tools are among the most common K-12 expenses for which governors used GEER funds. Connecticut invested tens of millions of dollars in 50,000 laptops for students, 12 months of home internet access for 60,000 students, and 200 free public Wi-Fi hotspots at community sites. Maine used GEER funds to purchase nearly 15,000 internet service contracts for families. Montana spent $230,000 to expand its online learning platform.

Other uses of GEER funding have included $40 million in North Carolina for nurses and psychologists; grants for districts to reduce class sizes for summer school programs in Minnesota; and $10 million for early-literacy programs in Massachusetts.

How helpful has the GEER money been?

It remains to be seen. There hasn’t been much accounting nationwide of the effectiveness of GEER and the initiatives it funded.

However, a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General revealed recently that Oklahoma mishandled as much as $31 million of its $39 million in GEER funds.

In one notable instance, roughly 10 percent of $6 million that was designed for families to purchase school supplies ended up being spent on extraneous items like Christmas trees and television sets because the state didn’t properly monitor the program, the report said. Those issues were first revealed this May in an investigative report by state news outlets Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier.

A spokesperson for Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a statement to media outlets that the state initiated its own audit of GEER spending several months ago, and that it was reviewing the report.

Another OIG report in February found that Missouri made errors in its attempt to prioritize school districts with the highest levels of need for broadband connectivity funding.

In other cases, GEER-funded initiatives didn’t play out exactly as hoped. Georgia offered all teachers in the state $125 to spend on school supplies for students by May 1. But when that date came around, many teachers hadn’t claimed their reward, and some email addresses were out of date, so the state extended the deadline to July 1, according to Meghan Frick, spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Education.

How much of the money remains to be spent or obligated?

Tracking GEER spending is difficult. The Hunt Institute identified 13 states, and the District of Columbia, where some GEER funds haven’t yet been obligated. GEER fund recipients in those places have less than two months to finish the job.

In some cases, delays are a product of the complexities of getting the funding from origin to destination. In Minnesota, for instance, the governor had to get approval from the state legislature to spend any funds received from the federal government, said Mike Latvis, senior executive director of legislative affairs for the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency, which supports school districts in Wayne County, including Detroit. As a result, Latvis said, the state’s GEER plan didn’t get approved, let alone executed, until nearly half a year after the March 2020 funding was enacted by Congress.

How will governors be held accountable for their GEER spending?

The Education Department’s inspector general is already working on an investigation of GEER spending in Michigan, according to its 2022 work plan. That office is also reviewing states’ implementation of their GEER plans and comparing them to what they originally laid out.

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