New York’s five largest school districts received $8.6 billion in federal pandemic relief funds, and analysis by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released today found sizeable differences in how school districts are using the funds. The New York City Department of Education plans to use a smaller share of the billions of dollars of its federal aid to help close pandemic learning gaps than other large school districts, both in New York and nationwide. The analysis looked at New York City, Yonkers, Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester, the “Big Five” school districts in New York, as well as national peer school districts.
“Many students fell behind in their studies during the COVID-19 pandemic and are still struggling to catch up,” DiNapoli said. “The federal government responded to the pandemic by providing significant one-time aid to school districts to support their operations and help students make up for lost learning. New York’s school districts should carefully monitor students’ academic recovery and report on their progress to allow policy makers and the public to assess the effectiveness of the funding decisions made.”
The federal government has provided nearly $190 billion to schools since the beginning of the pandemic. The funding was passed in three rounds of legislation which created and funded the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). The three rounds of funding are referred to as ESSER I, ESSER II and ESSER III.
School districts in New York state received a total of more than $14 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA), and the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act. New York City received $7.66 billion, with $6.9 billion of that coming in the second and third rounds of funding.
DiNapoli’s analysis found that New York City initially planned to spend 30.6% of the $6.9 billion on “operational supports,” which included school reopening costs, teacher retention, new learning technology and spending on existing programs. Rochester and Buffalo set aside around 62% of their funding for operational spending and Syracuse and Yonkers set aside 36% and 38%, respectively.
The second-largest part of New York City’s allocation, $1.98 billion, or 28.4%, targeted the full expansion of the city’s 3-K initiative (universal free educational childcare for 3-year-olds), which began before the pandemic hit. While 3-K expansion may help boost enrollment, attract and retain families with younger children, the city has yet to identify how it will pay for the entirety of the program’s expected $752 million annual cost after the federal funding is gone. The city has recently suggested it may change its plans from a rapid expansion of 3-K and instead work to ensure the existing seats are of high-quality.
None of the other Big Five districts planned to use more than two percent for early childhood education. New York City’s decision to fund the 3-K program with federal money also stands in contrast to other districts across the country as school districts in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Clark County (Las Vegas) have allotted from 0.4% to 17.1% of their funds for early childhood programs.
Spending for Pandemic Learning Loss
The ARP Act, which provided ESSER III, the largest of the three rounds of relief funding for education, stressed the importance of helping students recover the loss of learning that resulted from the pandemic. While remote learning was often a necessity during the pandemic, studies have found that it is not as effective as in-person learning, and that many students lost significant progress during the pandemic.
Recent testing data shows that students had substantial loss of learning nationally and in New York state and New York City. State standardized tests for grades 3 to 8 in New York City show math scores fell by 7.7% across all grades. Testing scores for English were mixed, with younger grades experiencing a measurable decline, while older grades saw modest improvement.
DiNapoli’s report found that academic recovery, geared to help those students whose educations were interrupted, initially received 16.5% of New York City’s ESSER III funding, falling short of the 20% minimum required by law. The city’s adopted FY 2023 budget repurposed an additional $176 million of ESSER III funding in FY 2023 to support its summer school program, “Summer Rising,” for another year, which would help it reach the required threshold for academic recovery purposes.
Recently, New York City officials also confirmed that they intend to provide $200 million in unspent ESSER aid to schools that would otherwise have seen a reduction in local formula-based funding due to declining enrollment; the extent to which such an allocation might count as supporting academic recovery is unclear.
Among the rest of New York’s Big Five school districts, Yonkers set aside the largest share of ESSER III funds for academic recovery (44.4%), followed by Syracuse (37.1%), Buffalo (30.1%), and Rochester (20.4%). In contrast to New York City, Los Angeles has dedicated 60.5% of its ESSER III funds for academic recovery.
Despite including measures for identifying student needs and tracking academic recovery as part of the ARP/ESSER III application process, only one of the Big Five districts reviewed (Buffalo) has provided regular public updates on the status of those measures at the individual school level, which are important for helping parents understand the effectiveness of fund distribution to individual schools. All districts can also provide better clarity on how funds are being linked to addressing actual lost instructional time rather than backfilling existing operations, particularly for those schools with larger disadvantaged populations.
DiNapoli’s report notes that while enrollment in most of the state’s Big Five districts was stable or declining slightly in the years immediately preceding the pandemic, the virus led to substantial enrollment declines in all five districts. In the 2021-22 school year, Buffalo was the only district to have more students enrolled than it did ten years prior.
Rochester, which had the worst enrollment trends, and New York City both experienced particularly sharp declines. Despite the general decline in enrollment in recent years, charter school enrollment in all five districts has continued to climb, even during the pandemic.
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