Tax Facts: How Are School Districts Spending Their Federal Relief Funds?
Wisconsin Policy Forum
School districts in Wisconsin have received nearly $2.4 billion in one-time federal pandemic relief funds. They have spent much of that and have until September 2024 to spend the large sums that are left.
A recent Forum analysis of all Wisconsin school districts found during their first rounds of federal aid spending, that districts were targeting immediate pandemic needs such as health and safety, educational technology, and distance education.
Those dollars were mostly spent on investments that can be broadly categorized into educational technology, and COVID-19 preparedness and response, followed by addressing long-term school closures.
Examples of specific costs associated with each of these categories include student laptops, access points, and educational software (educational technology); personal protective equipment and staff training on reducing the spread of disease (preparedness and response to COVID-19); and instructional materials, curriculum costs, staff professional learning, and salary reimbursements for educators planning time to adapt to new learning environments (to cope with school closures long-term).
When we broke these statewide totals down by region, district size, and demographics, we found that these three categories remained the top spending categories, regardless of district type or size.
Meanwhile, districts with more than 50 percent of students from low-income households spent the largest proportion of their initial federal aid allocations on educational technology. It reinforces previous Forum research on the “digital divide”which showed that technology needs were greatest for districts serving the most students from low-income households and students of color.
More recent federal aid spending has responded more broadly to student and district needs. The fight against long-term school closures rose to the top, while educational technology fell to a smaller share of the total. The share of spending on COVID-19 preparedness and response has remained relatively stable
Districts across the country are facing the challenge of figuring out how to use federal relief funds for one-time COVID-19 demands without leaving budget holes when one-time funds expire. For districts in Wisconsin, the 2021-23 state budget increased this tension by providing no increases to state revenue caps on local property taxes and general state school aid.
The bulk of federal aid was allocated in the form of the Governor’s Education Emergency Relief (GEER) and Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER), with the latter split into three rounds. Significant sums of federal aid to schools remain to be spent, particularly for the third and final round of ESSER funding.
With most districts still facing a confluence of financial challenges, strategic use of remaining dollars will be critical to financial health and student success.
This information is provided to members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association as a service of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, the state’s premier resource for nonpartisan local and state government research and civic education. Learn more about www.wispolicyforum.org.