A new analysis finds that 80% of urban public school districts receiving the largest share of federal pandemic relief funds had decreased enrollment last year.
School tracking website Burbio reported this week that 5,500 public school districts are preparing to spend $91 billion from the emergency relief fund for elementary and secondary schools. This third round of pandemic relief funding, also known as ESSER III, became available when President Biden signed the US bailout into law in March 2021.
According to a Burbio analysis, 40 of the 50 districts with more than 10,000 students who earned the most money per student experienced a drop in enrollment last year. They also have more eligible Title 1 students with special needs helping with math and reading.
“Almost all school districts got some money,” said Dennis Roche, president of Borbio. “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, Detroit Public Schools will spend $16,585 per student in funding. From the 2019-20 school year to 2020-21, their enrollment fell 3.7% and fell again by half a percentage point last year.
After Detroit, Philadelphia School District received the second highest allocation, $8,985 per student. Enrollment in Pennsylvania County fell 5% two years ago and 4.8% last year.
The third largest spender will be the Cleveland Municipal School District at $8,448 per student. Enrollment in Ohio County fell 5.9% two years ago and fell 1.9% last year.
Ray Guarindi, a clinical psychologist in Canton, Ohio who advises families, said the data shows that government funding is not the main thing helping children recover from the pandemic.
“The number one factor in student achievement is parental involvement and family stability. This factor dwarfs all other factors,” Mr. Guarendi said in an email.
Counties plan to spend ESSER-III money on technology upgrades, teacher hiring, mental health resources and increased security to prevent mass shootings like the one that occurred in Ovaldi, Texas on May 24.
The funds will address issues that have arisen or intensified while public schools have enforced virtual two-year learning and invisibility policies.
Larger urban areas suffered from lower enrollment rates, lower test scores, teacher shortages, and increased student depression and anxiety, as home learning extended longer than many rural and private schools.
In December, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory report on the “urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis” that erupted in the lockdowns.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 300,000 teachers and employees quit their jobs between February 2020 and May 2022. In surveys, most retired and departing teachers cited COVID-19 burnout as the reason for their departure.
On September 1, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that long-term average math scores fell among 9-year-olds for the first time as schools closed between early 2020 and winter 2022. Reading scores in the same age group posted the worst decline Since 1990.
According to the teachers’ unions, test scores have fallen because some students lack the resources to learn from home, and enrollment has fallen largely due to low birth rates.
“Our black and brown students, as well as economically disadvantaged students, have faced the brunt of an ever-growing gap in resources and opportunity,” Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, said in a recent statement.
“This is a year to accelerate learning by rebuilding relationships, focusing on fundamentals and investing in our public schools,” said Randy Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Earlier this year, a Harvard University report on testing data from 2.1 million students in 10,000 schools found that multicultural and high-poverty public schools spent more weeks teaching remotely during the 2020-2021 period. As a result, they had the largest 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 closed for longer than health experts are asking.
Teachers’ unions saw the pandemic as cash-grabbing. “They have claimed, erroneously, that it would be unsafe to bring children back into the classroom during the pandemic without ESSER funding,” Mr. Nester said in an email.
While public schools have remained closed during the pandemic, many parents have turned to homeschooling and private schools that reopened earlier.
The National Catholic Education Association says enrollment in US Catholic schools increased by 62,000 in 2020-21 to about 1.68 million students last year. This was its first annual increase in two decades and the largest in 50 years of data on record.
Homeschooling groups across the country have also reported a sustained increase in enrollment.
Dalyn Bradley, a North Carolina mother, has been homeschooling her four older children since she pulled them out of the Johnston County School District in 2020.
She says the family has no intention of going back to public schools, no matter how much money they spend.
“We no longer want our children 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.
Funding for pandemic relief may not reverse the decline in enrollment, says Shelby Doyle, vice president of public outreach for the National School Choice Education Foundation.
“The types of schools parents choose for their children have fundamentally changed and will continue to change,” said Ms. Doyle.