Parents are now free to refute claims that more funding will solve their communities’ educational woes. Public schools around the country remained closed throughout the pandemic, despite a massive, unprecedented infusion of federal education funds in 2020. Districts chose to leave almost all of the initial $70 billion in pandemic-response funding unspent, however, while young students failed to learn to read, learning gaps between low-income and wealthy students expanded, mental health deteriorated, and students increasingly disengaged from education

And yet Congress and the Biden administration inexplicably bestowed more K-12 federal funding upon public schools. The $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” (ARP) stimulus package provides an additional $129 billion to states for K-12 education. On average, school districts could receive approximately $3,800 per pupil in additional education funding from the three stimulus packages passed during COVID, with high-poverty districts receiving higher amounts per student. The funds flow to states with no consideration for the severity of COVID’s impact on state finances or the educational impact on students. Irresponsibly, the funds are not contingent on schools reopening their doors to students. 

To be clear, the federal COVID-response funds did not ensure that schools reopened in the school year that just ended, and little will be spent to address the nation’s learning loss crisis this summer. Only a tiny fraction of the multiple rounds of “emergency” K-12 education funding were spent this year. Most of the ARP funding will be spent on programs unrelated to COVID over the following seven years. According to Education Week, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that less than 5% of the $129 billion in ARP K-12 funding would be spent in this fiscal year, with the rest of the spending continuing through fiscal 2028.

School districts saved millions by remaining closed for the last year and only providing remote education to students. Los Angeles Unified, for example, saved $1,074 per student by keeping its doors closed. Closing schools lowered costs for utilities, transportation, and substitute teachers, and districts could use federal funds for remote learning expenses, if they chose. According to the Edunomics Lab, some districts ran budget surpluses.

As districts slowly start facing the realities of significant cumulative learning loss due to disastrous remote and hybrid learning, parents need to hold local education leaders responsible for the allocation of both districts’ surpluses and the new federal funds. The U.S. Department of Education already issued two-thirds of the state allocations for ARP stimulus funding and will issue the final third after reviewing states’ plans for spending the funds. Many states missed the deadline for submitting plans, likely due to uncertainty on how to manage the staggering sums. Parents and community leaders must demand to know how school districts will spend their states’ latest round of funding—$15 billion to California and $5 billion to Illinois, for example. With high-poverty districts like Chicago receiving an additional $5,200 per student—in addition to unspent emergency K-12 funding provided in 2020—the funding amounts are significant even at an individual school and per-pupil level. If states and districts aren’t held accountable, however, the funding will be funneled through the public school bureaucracies with no expectations and little accountability.

Previous large federal initiatives such as 2009’s Race to the Top program revealed that states are terrible at spending large amounts of education funding quickly. They tie themselves in knots over procurement, contracting, legal, and implementation challenges. They certainly don’t prioritize the needs of students and parents, as they’re too focused on the process of shoveling the funds through the system. The Race to the Top program was at least designed to transform the education system; sadly, the latest round of stimulus funding will simply flow by an existing federal formula without specific goals or expectations.

Although Congress banned governors from using recent rounds of federal funds for private school choice scholarship programs, states could take advantage of this education cash windfall and think innovatively. The State Policy Network developed a toolkit of student-centered policy options to consider, and additional student-focused policy ideas abound. With public school districts flush with federal cash for the next seven to eight years, states possess the fiscal freedom to launch and expand initiatives that allow education funding to follow the child. 

The pandemic opened parents’ eyes to just how utterly unresponsive and inflexible districts are to their children’s needs. All families should possess purchasing power to direct their children’s educational path, rather than remain beholden to district inertia and negligence. States and districts should use the additional federal funds to provide educational opportunities for families and utilize the cash cushion it provides to inspire creative thinking.