A series of government reports have documented how much of the trillions of dollars purportedly spent on “Covid relief” went to waste — ranging from the hundreds of billions in fraud (i.e., the “Great Grift”) to extravagant local government expenditures (e.g., renovating a minor league baseball stadium and replacing irrigation systems at golf courses).
But out of all that waste, most Americans would consider money spent on countering pandemic learning loss a legitimate use of government resources. (Mind you, many Americans, including this one, would question why public school unions insisted on keeping schools closed for endless periods of time, but that’s a separate story.)
Now several new data points suggest that much of this money has likewise been frittered away, leaving a generation of American students far worse off.
Wasteful School Spending
An in-depth investigation by the education organization The 74 demonstrated that much of the $190 billion in federal funds has gone to projects that often will not directly help students learn. A series of public records requests discovered just some of the ways districts spent their federal relief dollars.
To begin, in Colorado, a charter school network “spent about $70,000 for an exterior fence at its Aurora campus so students and staff could eat outside despite concerns about proximity to the community’s rising homeless population.” While this expenditure says much about social policy in Colorado, it has practically nothing to do with reversing learning losses.
In California, Oakland’s school district used $1.6 million for a payment on a $100 million loan the district took out from the state of California in 2003 — well before the coronavirus hit. What’s more, the district in Stockton, California, “spent over $2 million on high-level central office positions, like a facilities director.”
Youngstown, Ohio, frittered away $5 million on equipment and supplies to provide free WiFi from utility poles — a project the district could never implement because the city didn’t own all of the utility poles in question.
And in Utah, the Granite Public Schools spent $86,000 on “accommodations” for a conference held at — wait for it — Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
Call me crazy, but when the federal government gave out money to help public schools, I don’t think that sending a bunch of administrators to meet Donny Osmond was at the front of most taxpayers’ minds. What’s more, the school district publicly advertised and bragged about this extravagant expenditure of government funds, which demonstrates that public school employees need some lessons in political science — either that or they just don’t care.
In some respects, it’s a miracle that The 74 could even compile these examples of wasteful public school spending. In many states and districts, citizens can’t even track where districts’ share of the $190 billion in federal funding went — let alone how (if at all) it is countering the effects of pandemic learning loss.
As one Fairfax County, Virginia, parent noted, districts’ reports on their spending are often “full of jargon and gobbledygook.”
Poor Quality Teaching
An even more troubling sign came in the form of another recent report, this one by the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Its study focused on in-depth interviews with leaders at five public school districts and found that even in districts that have dedicated resources toward stemming Covid-related learning loss, teachers and administrators faced an uphill battle to regain lost ground.
Broadly speaking, the report indicated that districts cannot keep up with the current curriculum, let alone try to undo the effects of Covid closures. Many teachers have left, substitutes and replacements remain scarce, skills have atrophied, and administrators lacked the time or ability to supervise teachers’ instructional methods until very recently.
Consider the following quotes from the report:
- “$500,000 for tutoring, basically. Are you kidding me? That’s a lot of money. And nothing to show for it [in terms of impact on student learning].”
- “We spent a lot of money on retention bonuses and ‘please stay’ payments. … You might as well burn that money because it didn’t bear out. People left anyway.”
- “All these [tutoring] companies … accelerated their hiring and probably didn’t have time to appropriately train people up or go in and coach people on the job. They’re just placing people. And so we’re probably getting some B Team members.”
- “I do think the first and foremost issue is ‘Do we have enough high quality teachers in our schools to do this work?’ And the answer is no right now for us.”
- “There’s been a lot of protectivist [attitudes among district staff], like we can’t ask teachers to do anything else.”
- “[We have teachers who lack] expectations for kids; that kids can be excellent.”
A demoralized workforce that cannot keep pace, and in many cases lacks the initiative to demand high standards of either its students or itself — that’s what $190 billion in federal funds has bought the American people.
Of course, teachers unions have no one but themselves to blame for the problems in public education post-Covid, having lobbied extensively to keep schools closed for most (if not all) of the pandemic. But the next generation of Americans deserves far better from their educational system.
Some are getting it, even if they have to go outside the traditional public school system to do so. Here’s hoping that states will continue to expand school choice — a far better investment of taxpayer resources — to give people more options other than a sclerotic, wasteful, and ineffective public school bureaucracy.