80% of large public school districts receiving federal relief money have declining enrollments

A new analysis finds that 80% of the urban public school districts receiving the largest share of federal pandemic relief money had declining enrollments last year.

School tracking website Burbio reported this week that 5,500 public school districts are preparing to spend $91 billion from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. This third round of pandemic relief funding, also known as ESSER III, became available when President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law in March 2021.

According to Burbio’s analysis, 40 of the 50 districts with more than 10,000 students that received the most money per student had enrollment declines last year. They also had more Title 1 students who qualified for special needs help in math and reading.

“Almost all school districts got some money,” said Dennis Roche, Burbio’s president. “Districts got a higher amount per student if they had a high percentage of Title 1 students.”

School districts must spend the money within three years.

At the top of the list, the Detroit Public Schools will spend $16,585 per student of the funding. From the 2019-20 school year to 2020-21, their enrollment fell 3.7% and dropped again by half a percentage point last year.

Following Detroit, the Philadelphia City School District received the next-highest allocation, $8,985 per student. Enrollment in the Pennsylvania district dropped by 5% two years ago and by 4.8% last year.

The third-biggest spender will be the Cleveland Municipal School District at $8,448 per student. The Ohio district’s enrollment dropped by 5.9% two years ago and fell by 1.9% last year.

Ray Guarendi, a Canton, Ohio-based clinical psychologist who counsels families, said the data makes it “absolutely clear” that government funding isn’t the main thing helping kids recover from the pandemic.

“The number one factor in student achievement is parental involvement and family stability. That factor dwarfs all other factors,” Mr. Guarendi said in an email.

Districts plan to spend the ESSER-III money on technology upgrades, teacher recruitment, mental health resources and increased security to prevent mass shootings like the one in Uvalde, Texas on May 24.

The money will address issues that arose or intensified while public schools enforced virtual learning and masking policies for two years.

Large urban districts suffered enrollment declines, decreased test scores, teacher shortages and rising student depression and anxiety as they extended at-home learning longer than many rural and private schools.

In December, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory about the “urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis” that flared up in lockdowns.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 300,000 teachers and staff quit their jobs between February 2020 and May 2022. In surveys, most retiring and departing teachers cited COVID-19 burnout as their reason for leaving.

On Sept. 1, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported average long-term math scores fell among 9-year-olds for the first time as schools shuttered between early 2020 and winter 2022. Reading scores in the same age group had the worst drop since 1990.

According to the teachers’ unions, test scores dropped because some students lacked the resources to learn from home, and enrollment has fallen largely because of declining birth rates.

“Our Black and brown students, as well as students who are economically disadvantaged, have faced the brunt of an ever-growing gap in resources and opportunities,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a recent statement.

“This is a year to accelerate learning by rebuilding relationships, focusing on the basics and investing in our public schools,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

Earlier this year, a Harvard University report on testing data from 2.1 million students in 10,000 schools found that high-poverty, multicultural public schools spent more weeks in remote instruction during 2020-21. As a result, they had the steepest declines in math and reading scores.

Alex Nester, an investigative fellow at Parents Defending Education, says teachers’ unions have yet to take responsibility for keeping schools shut down longer than health experts required.

“Teachers’ unions saw the pandemic as a money grab. They claimed, falsely, that it would be unsafe to return kids to the classroom during the pandemic without ESSER funding,” Mr. Nester said in an email.

While public schools remained closed during the pandemic, many parents switched to homeschooling and private schools that reopened earlier.

The National Catholic Educational Association says enrollment in U.S. Catholic schools increased by 62,000 in 2020-21 to about 1.68 million students last year. It was their first annual increase in two decades and the biggest in 50 years of recorded data.

Homeschooling groups across the nation have also reported ongoing enrollment surges.

North Carolina mother Dalaine Bradley has homeschooled her four oldest children since she pulled them out of the Johnston County School District in 2020.

She says the family has no intention of returning to the public schools, regardless of how much money they spend.

“We no longer wanted our kids to have to sit in a classroom with books and papers all day for six to seven hours,” said Ms. Bradley, who started the @BlackMomsDoHomeschool Instagram channel.

Shelby Doyle, vice president of public awareness for the National School Choice Awareness Foundation, says pandemic relief funding may not reverse the declining enrollments.

“The types of schools parents are choosing for their kids have fundamentally changed and will keep changing,” Ms. Doyle said.

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