Schools have a once-in-a-generation infusion of massive funding to tackle a pandemic problem: millions of students struggling in school since COVID-19 disrupted education. So far, Texas schools have tapped less than a third of the cash with only two years left to spend it all.
Supply chain delays, staffing shortages and trouble hiring have tripped up plans. That means school leaders may need to rush to use all funds before deadlines.
The $18 billion designated for Texas schools, approved by Congress, represents a significant windfall for tutoring, more teachers, salary increases, upgrades to air conditioning and more. Any unused funds will be sent back.
“This is by far the largest influx of federal money we have ever had,” Cory Green, the Texas Education Agency’s associate commissioner of grant compliance administration, told lawmakers at a hearing in early July.
Duncanville, for example, spent some of the district’s aid on diagnosing why its students, like many across Texas, fell behind in math and reading. From 2019 to 2021, the percentage of third graders passing those state tests dropped by more than 20 percentage points.
District officials deployed targeted tests and surveys to pinpoint where each student was struggling — both academically and emotionally.
“When we think about the learning loss, we have to first know where people are in order to take them to the next level,” said Connie Wallace, the district’s chief of special initiatives and collaborative community.
School officials have wide discretion on how to spend the money. They must decide whether the initiatives they implement with the federal funds are worth sustaining in the long run and – if so – how to pay for them.
State leaders have emphasized that the Legislature won’t replace the cash flow after they run out.
Texas lawmakers urge districts to keep track of what investments were worth the money and made a difference.
“We will hopefully get some answers someday of what worked and what did not work,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who leads the Senate’s Finance Committee.
Dallas ISD is on track to spend all of the federal money but contingency plans are in place in case plans fall through, said Derek Little, the district’s deputy chief academic officer.
The last year of pandemic spending was complicated by supply shortages and hiring challenges, he said. DISD struggled to spend money on special education services, speech pathologists and substitutes because of candidate shortages.
Deadlines for spending are starting to approach.
Congress approved three federal aid packages for schools across the country during the pandemic. Texas used the first, totaling about $1 billion, mostly to swap out some state funding.
The next two packages largely flowed directly to local districts. Roughly 71% of those packages – with respective expiration dates in September of 2023 and 2024 – remain unspent, according to TEA.
Most Dallas County districts spent less than a quarter of the third pot of dollars, according to the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. The lab, which tracks district-level spending, showed that Dallas used less than 3% of its final package as of May 4.
The district intends to spend more than $250 million from the funds this school year on a number of initiatives including staff retention incentives, building out its college advising program and supporting its new virtual school.
“We’re making adjustments along the way because we fully expect and need to deploy these resources for our students,” Little said.
DISD and others struggled with clunky federal procurement processes and small candidate pools for key positions — namely teachers. Many districts held hiring fairs well into the 2021-22 school year.
“One of the things we saw from a lot of districts and charters was they did intend to hire additional staffing not only for additional tutoring and learning loss type activities … but also just additional staffing to make smaller class sizes,” TEA’s associate commissioner Green said. “What many of them do report is they’re having difficulty finding teachers that want to work in schools during the pandemic.”
Nationwide, schools must spend the money at a faster rate than they currently are to take advantage of the aid before it expires in 2024, said Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab.
She echoed lawmakers’ call for schools to keep tabs on how investments are paying off. Every district should keep a close eye on data measuring recovery strategies, whether it be daily attendance numbers, weekly test scores or bi-yearly reading exam results.
“No other industry does massive investments, and then just sits back and prays for months and months on end,” said Roza, who studies education finance.
Green told state senators that TEA will keep tabs on academic accountability ratings – which are largely based on STAAR results – to gauge how effectively schools are supporting student recovery.
Next month, Dallas administrators will release a report on what to continue and what to eliminate.
This kind of self-audit is crucial to ensuring the federal money is spent wisely, Roza emphasized.
If a school spent money on a new gym scoreboard to bring more students to campus, for instance, administrators should analyze attendance numbers, she suggested.
And when it comes to learning strategies, schools should not wait to see annual exam results — such as those from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness tests — to decide whether a strategy is working.
“If they’re not looking at those data on a classroom by classroom basis, well, shame on them,” Roza said.
The nearly $40 million Duncanville received equated to about a third of their budget for the last school year.
Duncanville invested in tutors and training for teachers so they could help students who may be multiple grade levels behind. In addition, the district provided a $2,500 retention stipend to employees.
All of the district’s efforts were aimed at making sure Duncanville kids came out successful on the other side of the pandemic, Wallace said.
Texas’ top uses of the federal funding include paying for more counselors, nurses and teachers as well as for boosting teacher pay.
Spending varied greatly based on community needs.
In Garland, for example, district leaders budgeted almost $50 million on retention stipends, $10 million on network Wi-Fi upgrades and a little more than $11 million on adding days to the school year.
Meanwhile, Mesquite devoted about $22 million to stipends for teachers devoted to recovering lost learning and $6 million to expand summer learning.
Irving officials targeted $27 million for technology and $36 million on learning loss and emotional needs.
The TEA associate commissioner cautioned that districts should be wary of spending on too many recurring costs, such as salary increases or new positions. When the money runs out, they could be hard to maintain, he said.
Roughly one-quarter of the expenditures recorded thus far fall into the recurring category, according to TEA.
Wallace cited Duncanville’s “healthy fund balance,” when asked whether the district had any concerns about the impending fiscal cliff.
“We have looked down the road. …We knew when we made our decision that we would be able to sustain this investment,” she said.
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.