Analysis faults California school districts on lack of spending accountability for COVID funding

By John Fensterwald, EdSource

Last September, all school districts and charter schools completed a learning continuity plan in which they were required to provide extensive information on how they planned to use federal Covid relief and state funding to address learning gaps caused by the pandemic and meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.

An intensive review of 48 districts’ plans by four student advocacy nonprofit organizations, released Tuesday, found model practices worth adopting, like Anaheim Elementary School District’s creation of an after-school Emergent Bilingual Academy for struggling English learners.

But the review also revealed significant flaws in documenting the spending. Many districts wrote vague responses when asked to explain how they would measure and intervene with students falling academically behind. Others offered little or no information on addressing the social and emotional needs of priority student groups that receive more state money, including low-income, foster and homeless children.

More concerning, the report said, were big gaps in financial disclosure. Nine out of 10 of the districts, the report said, included less than half of their total revenue in their plans and didn’t break out the sources of the funding and how districts planned to use money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, which Congress passed in March 2020, providing $1.7 billion to districts.

“This gap in information underscores that there is inadequate transparency as to when and how districts spent the majority of their increased budgets, including billions in federal relief funds,” the report said.

The groups Children Now, Public Advocates, the National Center for Youth Law, and Californians Together did the analysis. They chose the 48 districts from throughout the state with various concentrations of “high-need” student groups. They range from Los Angeles Unified and Fresno Unified to 5,000-student San Ysidro Elementary School District in San Diego County.

The groups said that the lack of information in the Learning Continuity Plans has worrisome implications moving forward. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 shut down schools in March 2020, unprecedented federal and state funding targeted for the pandemic’s impact on schools now totals about $35 billion, which must be spent over the next several years.

Districts’ and charter schools’ next reporting is due June 1, when districts must complete a form on how they will spend the state funding from the $4.6 billion Expanded Learning Opportunity funding that the Legislature passed two months ago. They are required to reach out to parents, teachers and students for their views.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-imagine our schools with transformative investments that can ensure all students will thrive,” said Erin Apte, legislative counsel with Public Advocates. “We cannot repeat past mistakes” and leave parents, students and others “who under the law must be partners in planning in the dark about how these funds were spent,” she said.

The report makes 20 recommendations for districts. Among them, it urges them to seriously address the heightened stress and trauma that students have experienced from Covid, to explain how they will hire and reallocate staff to address the challenges that students with extra needs, such as trauma or homelessness, face and to provide specifics on how they will increase access to technology and internet connections.

But it also asks the state to require more detailed financial reporting, including that districts list not only how much they will spend but how much total state and federal funding, by type and amount, they have received. Neither the report last fall nor the upcoming June template required revenue totals.

Without more transparency, accountability and the opportunity for community members to have a say, “we and other equity-minded stakeholders will begin to lose faith” in the large, flexible funding that the state and federal governments have provided, Public Advocates, Children Now and other advocacy groups wrote in a March letter to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and the State Board of Education.

Contributed by local news sources

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