Education Funding

District Leaders Plea to Feds: We Need More Time to Spend COVID Aid

By Libby Stanford — September 01, 2022 5 min read
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The American Rescue Plan is intended to help districts launch programs to facilitate academic recovery from the pandemic, but district leaders already are looking to cut such programs when the federal COVID aid runs out, AASA, the School Superintendents Association warns.

Forty-eight percent of district leaders who responded to a July survey told the AASA that the federal COVID-19 relief’s December 2024 funding cliff is an obstacle, and they’ve already started identifying which programs are going to be axed once it hits.

For example, 57 percent of over 500 district leaders plan to shelve funding for summer learning and enrichment programs, and 53 percent will let contracts with specialized staff like social workers, reading interventionists, and school counselors expire. Forty-four percent said they would cut teacher compensation for extended learning and after-school programs.

The plans to cut funding and the anxieties district leaders feel about getting the most out of funds make a clear case for extending the American Rescue Plan’s spending deadline, said Sasha Pudelski, the advocacy director for AASA. The association sent a letter on Aug. 29, which was signed by 683 superintendents from 47 states excluding Hawaii, Maryland, and Tennessee, to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona asking for guidance on whether and how districts can gain more flexibility for spending the money.

“Districts, as you can see from the survey, are still very concerned about the 2024 deadline and the impact it has on their ability to make sure the contracts they’re entering into now are appropriate and that they have the flexibility they need to renegotiate if they have to or to extend those contracts,” Pudelski said in an interview.

Ramping up pressure on the Education Department

Currently, school districts have until September 2024 to budget the $130 billion in federal funds that were sent to schools, but they can take until December of that year to actually spend the money.

Extending that deadline would take an act of Congress. But, in a May 13 letter to AASA, Cardona indicated that the U.S. Department of Education might grant spending-extension requests for up to 18 months past the September 2024 deadline in situations where districts would need to commit to a contract that requires payment beyond December 2024. Those extensions would be only for extenuating circumstances, largely apply to construction projects, and require state education agencies to secure a waiver on behalf of a district, department officials told Education Week in May.

In an interview with Education Week on Aug. 23, Cardona said he recognizes that some districts may come up against supply-chain issues when planning to spend the money and noted that the Education Department is “doing everything in our power to provide flexibilities where we can.”

“However, this is an act of Congress, right?” he said. “It’s not like we can override Congress’ expectations on this.”

The AASA on July 22 requested that the department confirm its plans to grant spending extensions and the requirements for those decisions. Since sending that letter, it has been “radio silence,” which prompted AASA to send the follow-up letter on Aug. 29, Pudelski said.

The group specifically asks the Education Department to provide guidance “as far in advance as possible on whether we can have additional time to liquidate funds, the circumstances under which it will be permissible, and the process for receiving approval.” Without that guidance as soon as possible, districts will not be able to rely on extensions when budgeting the money, the letter says.

‘Our kids need help now’

Cardona emphasized in his interview with Education Week the importance of quick action when it comes to spending the money, noting that it’s intended to help students recover from the pandemic’s immediate impacts.

“For me, it’s really important that the students get support now,” he said. “This isn’t a set of funds that are going to help address education for the next 10 or 15 years. It’s for students now.”

But Pudelski argued that more time to spend the money would allow the academic support to last for a year or two past December 2024 and in some cases give districts time to strategize long-term academic recovery.

December 2024 “was chosen arbitrarily as a deadline,” Pudelski said. “Now, two years in, we know better. We know the depth and extent of the needs of kids. And superintendents and district leaders are smartly trying to think through how not only they can invest the money in the best way possible this school year but how they can continue making sure the investments in those programs that are paying off or have the potential to really pay off [are] extended for as long as possible.”

In an EdWeek Research Center survey of 535 district leaders conducted between June 29 and July 18, 51 percent said they’ve spent the entirety or about three-quarters of their federal COVID-relief funds. The money has gone to a wide variety of projects and programs, including construction and ventilation upgrades, social-emotional-learning support, tutoring, and after-school programs, the survey showed.

AASA’s report says that if the spending deadline were extended past the 2024 deadline, 49 percent of district leaders would be able to retain recently hired staff and extend new programs and support for students, and 44 percent said they would keep their summer learning and enrichment programs.

The group’s Aug. 29 letter to Cardona cites a few examples in which districts would benefit from a deadline extension. A district may have intended to do a high-dosage tutoring program in the 2021-22 school year using the federal funds but might have been unable to do so because of staffing shortages. It could start an online tutoring service but wouldn’t be able to fund it past the 2023-24 school year under the current deadline.

In another example, a district may want to overhaul its HVAC systems, but complications, such as supply-chain shortages or unexpected mold and asbestos on school roofs, could push the timeline for the project past the December 2024 deadline.

Outside of extensions for extenuating circumstances, the Education Department has limited ability to provide more time for districts to spend the funds, a job that would be up to Congress. Cardona has called on state and local governments, which account for 90 percent of education funding, to make up the difference.

“Let’s have the same level of urgency at the state and local levels to increase funding in education the way the president has done,” he said in his Aug. 23 interview. “Kids need help now, and it shouldn’t just be the urgency from the federal government leading to education increases in funding.”


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