Study: Federal Pandemic Aid to Public Schools Was Insufficient; $700B Needed to Offset Effect on Economy

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Matthew Steinberg: ‘School leaders need to take seriously the short- and long-term consequences of learning loss and commit to addressing it with whatever federal resources they have available.’

Although the federal government provided an unprecedented level of emergency funding to U.S. public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, this support was insufficient and poorly targeted to offset the cost of recovering student learning loss, according to new research.

The study, by Schar School Associate Professor Matthew P. Steinberg and University of Delaware Assistant Professor Kenneth A. Shores, was published this week in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

Steinberg, director of EdPolicy Forward: The Center for Education Policy, and Shores estimate that $700 billion will be needed to offset COVID-induced learning loss, far more than the $190 billion allocated to public K–12 schools by the federal government through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. ESSER funding was approved through three bills signed into law in 2020 and 2021.

“Despite an extraordinary level of support by the federal government during the pandemic, U.S. schools are still $500 billion short of what’s needed to address unpreceded levels of learning loss,” said Steinberg. “While the investment in ESSER was incredible in scale, it pales in comparison to the negative impact on the economy if a generation of children does not recover from what this pandemic has done to them academically.” 

To estimate the cost of remediating student learning loss, the authors leveraged prior estimates of learning loss, time spent in remote instruction, and the cost of increasing student achievement, gleaned from existing research studies and data from the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Census Bureau, and other sources.

Shores and Steinberg also found that ESSER funds—issued through the Department of Education’s Title I program—were likely not distributed to places with the greatest learning loss.

“COVID-19 hit communities of color very hard, regardless of poverty,” said Shores. “Communities of color that may have faced difficult challenges due to the pandemic would not have received the funds needed to remediate student learning losses.”

The authors note that many school districts do not plan to use the majority of ESSER funds they receive to offset learning loss, and that there is little way for policymakers to know how ESSER support is being used.

“Policymakers should require, or least provide incentives to, school districts to use federal aid for remediating student learning losses,” said Steinberg. “This is much more important than using it, for example, for new facilities construction—such as athletic fields—that have little to do with addressing the academic needs of students.”

“School leaders need to take seriously the short- and long-term consequences of learning loss and commit to addressing it with whatever federal resources they have available,” he added. “At the same time, policymakers should work to establish data monitoring systems to track how districts are spending federal stimulus funds in real time.”