How Illinois schools are using $7.9B in COVID-19 aid

How Illinois schools are using $7.9B in COVID-19 aid

Illinois has already distributed billions in federal COVID-19 relief funds for education to school districts. The pandemic windfall should be used to help lagging students, not create programs requiring new taxes.

Nearly $7.9 billion has flowed to Illinois schools from federal pandemic relief programs, but because the funds are temporary they should not be used to start permanent programs that school districts cannot keep going.

Renovating a football field doesn’t help students recover from the achievement gaps the pandemic and remote learning fostered. Hiring tutors to help students catch up could.

The funds give schools an opportunity, and the deadlines are far enough away to allow school districts to deliberate about the wisest ways to help students make up what the pandemic took away.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief was part of the three major COVID-19 relief packages approved by Congress, commonly designated as ESSER I, II, or III. The funds were designed to address challenges schools faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The money can be allocated for purposes specified in exisiting federal education law to address the needs of low-income students or underserved students. That inlcudes providing meals or mental health services, summer programs and numerous other activities focused on helping schools recover from the coronavirus pandemic or mitigate its public health impact.

Illinois State Board of Education funding

The Illinois State Board of Education prioritized four areas to focus relief funds on immediately, including mental health and well-being, virtual coaching for new teachers, educator professional development, and access to learning through laptops and internet connectivity investments for all students. State boards of education, such as ISBE, can keep up to 10% of each ESSER fund to be spent at the state level. The remaining 90% of funds are directly allocated to schools based on the current federal funding formula. ISBE may also keep one-half of 1% to use for administrative costs.

Illinois’ plan for using the funding from ESSER III was approved by the U.S. Department of Education on Aug. 27, 2021. The plan shows how ISBE intends to prioritize the funding “to safely reopen and sustain the safe operation of schools and equitably expand opportunity for students who need it most, particularly those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

ISBE plans to use nearly $470 million of its share of ESSER III funding for the following specific purposes:

  • $357 million for addressing the academic impact of lost instructional time and investing in summer learning and expanded after-school programs
  • $52 million for closing the digital divide
  • $50 million for supporting students’ and educators’ social, emotional and mental health needs
  • $10 million for staffing to support students’ needs

Given the deadlines to spend the funds extend from September 2022 to September 2024, school districts should take their time in allocating the funds to specific problems, especially if they do not have an obvious or immediate priority for the funding. The deadlines to use the funds ensure the money does not need to be spent immediately.

Despite the relatively broad range of uses and numerous opportunities to use them to enhance school services and resources, Anna-Jonesboro Community High School first attempted to allocate nearly half of their $1.9 million relief funding from ESSER III to turf and track repairs for their football field. The plan was rejected by ISBE, leaving the school district to now consider using $700,000 of the funding to pay “most of the school’s non-certified employees for one year to help balance the school’s budget, improve water bottle fillers and pay for an educational program for the next two years.”

Illinois schools derive much of their funding from property taxes, which remained stable throughout the pandemic. As a result of stable funding and the additional federal relief funding, schools such as Waukegan Community Unit School District 60 were actually able to spend millions more than they did the year prior, meaning they were able to fund new programs rather than just filling budget holes.

That makes utilizing the funds responsibly even more important because the money is allowing schools to do more than just fill budget shortfalls. The Waukegan district is using some of the funding for tutors for students who are forced into quarantine and virtual learning for the upcoming school year. The district also used the funding to improve schools’ air quality, as improving safety was a priority of the relief funds. The district is also monitoring its ESSER spending and conducting a review every six months to ensure it does not overspend the funding it is slated to receive. It is important for schools to remember this is one-time funding and not something they can rely upon in the future for any new programs, services or administration generated through the ESSER funds.

Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund

In addition to ESSER funding, Illinois also received federal funds for education under the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. Illinois received just over $108.5 million from the CARES Act in that fund and an additional $48 million from CRRSA, or GEER II funding. GEER I funding was to be allocated at the discretion of governors to education entities throughout the state. The guidance on GEER funding from the federal government states, “A Governor has wide discretion in determining the entities in the State that will receive GEER funds.” It goes on to state the governor may choose to allocate the funds between K-12 schools and related education entities or higher education entities in any proportion the governor deems appropriate.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced his distributions of GEER I funding on July 14, 2020. Pritzker announced $10 million for supporting early childhood programs throughout the state. Another $50 million would go to K-12 schools for three purposes including closing the digital divide, training for educators and parents, and social-emotional supports for students. That figure will consist of $32.5 million for purchasing devices such as laptops for students, $7.5 million for internet hotspots to increase connectivity access, $7.5 million for in-training for both educators and families so they can use and understand new learning technology, and $2.5 million to ISBE to create an organization to provide assistance to students and families and focus on improving health and safety called the Student Care Department.

Nearly half of the GEER I funds, some $49 million, will go to higher education, with $46 million in direct funds to colleges to help students overcome obstacles created by the pandemic. Specific uses for those direct funds include access to laptops, mentoring, books, child care and transportation.

Another $3 million in GEER I funding will be used to “support targeted initiatives to enroll and retain underrepresented, first-generation, and high-need students at public and non-profit, independent four-year institutions of higher education in Illinois.” As of February 2021, nearly $48 million in GEER II funding was still in the planning stages and not yet designated for spending. All told, Illinois received more than $156 million in education relief funding designated for Pritzker to allocate throughout education entities in Illinois.

What should the money be used for?

Given the large infusion of cash into education in Illinois and elsewhere, it is important for schools to spend the money responsibly. One recommendation for getting the most out of the money is to avoid creating new programs, adding staff and buying new equipment that requires funding long after these temporary federal dollars will expire. Schools struggling with their budgets before and during the pandemic will continue to struggle if they only use the temporary federal funding to create new costs for themselves.

The primary use of these funds must address the learning loss resulting from the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan Act requires 20% of the money given to school districts and 5% of the money given to state boards of education be used to address learning loss.

Preliminary reports from the Illinois Assessment of Readiness revealed serious struggles for Illinois students regardless of their district and younger students suffering the sharpest declines. Statewide data showed almost 17% fewer students met standards in English in 2021 versus 2019. Similarly, about 18% fewer students met math standards for their grade level. Third grade scores declined 8% in English and nearly 10% in math, the equivalent of 22% fewer third graders meeting the grade-level standard for English and 24% fewer of them meeting the standards for math. The number of 11th graders achieving proficiency in English declined nearly 8% while their math proficiency declined 14%, according to their SAT scores.

With billions of dollars in aid filtering to Illinois school districts and early data showing the significant harm the pandemic has had on Illinois students, all options should be considered in order to correct learning loss and improve student outcomes. One of those options should be school district consolidation.

Data shows consolidation can boost outcomes by increasing resources available for instruction, such as hiring additional teachers to reduce class sizes or boosting teacher pay to attract better talent. With too many school districts serving too few students, Illinois inefficiently spends administrative education funds versus larger states. Illinois’ schools also outspend and underperform neighbors, with administrative bloat keeping more money from making it into classrooms to benefit students and boost educational outcomes. Allowing for district consolidation would offer a chance to maximize federal relief dollars and increase the positive impact funding could have on student outcomes.

Every dollar of federal education relief funding should be spent with the primary focus of helping students recover from learning loss incurred by the pandemic. Allowing the money to be wasted on new programs that will go unfunded once the excess funding runs out or to be gobbled up by administrative expenses would be to fail Illinois’ students.

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