Is Federal COVID Aid Setting Schools Up to Fail?

America’s K-12 schools have been among the biggest winners of COVID relief funds since March 2020. But wasteful spending decisions by administrators are setting public school districts up for big failures when the COVID relief money spigot gets shut off in two years.

RealClearInvestigation‘s Steve Miller explains how today’s bad spending decisions by public school bureaucrats will lead to bad outcomes for teachers and students:

As school districts across the country grapple with declining enrollments induced by the pandemic, many are engaged in spending sprees like those of the past leading to widespread layoffs and budget cuts when federal money ran out.

Bolstered by $190 billion in pandemic relief funding from Washington, the nation’s public schools are hiring new teachers and staff, raising salaries, and sweetening benefit packages. Some are buying new vehicles. Others are building theaters and sports facilities.

Using such temporary support for new staff and projects with long-term costs is setting the table for perilous “fiscal cliffs” after COVID funding expires in 2024, some education budget analysts say. And that’s on top of doubts about whether money to battle the pandemic is being properly spent in the first place.

Schools’ Spending a Study in Waste

Miller lists several examples of wasteful spending by bureaucrats at several school districts across the U.S., including:

  • McAllen, Texas’ Independent School District’s $4 million expenditure for expanding an urban bird sanctuary in the city.
  • North Carolina’s Moore County Schools, which burned through $25 million in its COVID relief funds, used them to buy gym lockers and build two running tracks.
  • Iowa’s Creston Community School District’s use of $231,000 in COVID relief funds to upgrade their sports stadium bleachers to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Other school districts are hiring teachers and staff or are buying vehicles and other assets that have short lives and high costs, even though their enrollments are falling. While they can afford them now with their COVID relief “stimmy” checks, a harsh economic reality will set in when those funds go away.

Lessons from the Past

That harsh reality is easily predictable because it has happened before. Miller relates the history of what happened after a temporary Obama-era funding program for schools went away just six short years ago:

Recent history makes some of the new wave of spending hard to defend, and its dire consequences foreseeable. In a report meant to provide guidance for future grants, the Department of Education Inspector General examined how 22 districts spent money from 2009’s $107 billion Recovery Act and Education Jobs program, enacted in the wake of the 2008 recession.

Much like today, the money was spent on hiring more staff, professional development, salaries, technology, and facilities. Half the districts used at least some of the money to add employees or expand services, aware that they were unable to pay for them once the money ran out.

Layoffs predictably began in 2016 and swept the education sector, disproportionately affecting schools in lower income areas. “Tears and disbelief” was how the Baltimore Sun described the impact of layoffs, while progressives continued to criticize state education funding as unequal and unfair.

A similar fate awaits bureaucrats wasting today’s COVID school bailout money. These education professionals should have learned more about their need for sustainable spending policies from their previous failures. But I somehow doubt they’ve ever given themselves an “F” when grading their own fiscal performance.

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
Beacon Posts by Craig Eyermann | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst
  • Beyond Homeless