How are School Districts Spending COVID Relief Dollars? The Answer May Surprise You.


August 23, 2022 3:09PM

In the early months of 2020, local, state, and federal lawmakers scrambled to address the pandemic, with some taking a heavier approach than others, especially around businesses and public education. Though Tennessee’s governor only recommended school closures, not mandated them like other states, 2020 witnessed a time when all public schools in the country were closed to in-person learning. In response, Congress passed multiple bills to provide billions of federal tax dollars in relief, including nearly $190 billion for K- 12 public education.

These multiple federal relief bills injected the public education system in the Volunteer State with over $4 billion dollars. Of these dollars, public school districts directly received around $3.5 billion in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund, to be used to address the pandemic and learning loss. As with any government program that comes with a high price tag, reports began to emerge of school districts across the country using relief funds for things that don’t relate to the pandemic or learning loss, and won’t directly benefit the students who have lost months of their education. One article on the funds highlighted, “the massive increase in available funds and insufficient oversight has led to many school districts throwing money at projects unrelated to recovering from the pandemic, including sports facilities and an urban bird sanctuary.”

Witnessing the unfortunate reality that these tax dollars have been going to more than just getting students back to grade level, we decided to see where Tennessee public schools have been putting their portion of the billions of dollars in funding. In our report, Federal Funding Fallout: How Tennessee Public Schools Are Spending Billions in Relief Funds, we found school districts across the state have budgeted ESSER funds on things ranging from retractable bleachers and walk-in coolers, to building new auditoriums and department chair stipends. Though these budget items can be legitimate areas where schools spend money, when tax dollars are given to support students getting back to grade level and excel academically, budget items like this are difficult to support.

Surprisingly, while districts have budgeted their allocations of relief funding, the amount of money that has actually been spent is shockingly low. Monthly reports from the Tennessee Department of Education track how much funding has actually been spent and as of July 2022, our analysis shows less than a third of all ESSER funds have been spent and the majority of districts have barely touched their third round of funding. Though some in the education system make perennial calls for increasing funding, it seems districts are having trouble spending all of their current relief funds before the federal deadline.

For parents who see their child struggle academically and teachers who have to use their own money for school supplies, how these districts have budgeted ESSER funds should cause serious concern. Thankfully, one rule of the funds requires districts to provide an opportunity for public input on plans. But, at least for the case in Nashville, it seems no such input was requested until one reporter asked the district how they have involved parents in their planning decisions. The district sent out an email later the same day, asking for public input. Let’s hope the parental, student, and teacher input will help the district change budget allocations to better align with students’ needs.