The federal government sent around $190 billion in aid to public schools across the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic. That is a lot of money by any standards, but in terms of federal spending on primary education, it is a shockingly large amount: as Reason's Matt Welch explained when surveying the Biden administration's weak moves toward promoting public school reopening back in February, that's more than four times as much as the federal government tended to push toward K-12 education a year in pre-COVID times.
Is the money being diligently used for its intended purpose? Of course not. A survey by ProPublica found, when examining some of the "provisional annual reports…by state education agencies" for about $3 billion worth of the aid from March to September of 2020, that "just over half of the $3 billion in aid was categorized as 'other,' providing no insight into how the funds were allocated."
Over the last school year, 15 states constituting around a quarter of the total U.S. population didn't even manage to achieve 50 percent effective in-person education, the alleged purpose of all that federal COVID money.
ProPublica reports that "Some districts have been found to be spending their federal funds on projects seemingly at odds with the spirit of the aid program, such as track and field facilities and bleachers." This is happening despite the fact that "Under the terms laid out by the federal government, states are responsible for developing tracking systems to ensure districts are spending the money on countering the effects of the pandemic."
"The law places few restrictions on how districts can spend the federal aid, as long as the investments are loosely connected to the effects of the pandemic," ProPublica explains, while noting that various districts, as reported by the Associated Press, are diverting the cash to athletics. The schools are supposed to spend all the money by 2024. The Associated Press reports that although schools "are required to tell states how they're spending the money…some schools are using local funding for sports projects and then replacing it with the federal relief—a maneuver that skirts reporting requirements."
This sort of thing has historical precedent, of course, with the Department of Education's Office of Inspector General having noted, ProPublica reports, "that after the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the Education Department was responsible for allocating $98 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which led to numerous investigations into abuse and waste."
Other details from ProPublica:
• "some of the largest districts in the nation marked all of their aid as going to the 'other' category, including Los Angeles Unified, which spent $49.5 million, and New York City's schools, which spent $111.5 million…New York City's district…used its federal funds to plug a gap in its budget [and] used the funds to cover the wages and operations of custodial workers."
•"In Texas, the McAllen Independent School District decided to spend $4 million of its education pandemic relief funds to construct a 5-acre outdoor learning environment connected to a local nature and birding center owned by the city."
Given that public school enrollment might well be plunging in the near future, this flood of allegedly-for-COVID money might be one of education bureaucrats last big sprees, so it's not shocking they are using it as they will.