By Nebraska Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt
When school buildings across the country shuttered in March 2020, state education departments, school district staff, and teachers worked to quickly set up systems, sometimes in a matter of days, to ensure children could keep learning despite the limitations necessitated by the spread of COVID-19.
All of those new systems came with additional costs: for laptops and Internet hotspots to help students learning at home, for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment to keep those who returned to school buildings safe, for individually-packaged meals and new bus routes to ensure the continued availability of healthy meals for low-income students.
Chiefs were incredibly grateful for the $13.2 billion in federal formula aid Congress provided to K-12 education in the CARES Act in spring 2020 and the $54.3 billion it provided under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act in December 2020.
Overhanging this much-needed aid and states’ expeditious use of it, however, are inaccurate reports that marred the good work happening on the ground. These reports don’t give the full picture of how funds are being used, only showing money that has officially been spent, not how much has been obligated through contracts.
To understand this discrepancy, it may be helpful to think of a household budget. Money must be set aside every month for rent or a mortgage payment, for example. Although money may be in a bank account at the end of one month, it doesn’t mean it’s available to spend – the bill is due soon.
Let me explain the reality in Nebraska, where we obligated 100% of the state’s initial $58.6 million ESSER aid by mid-September 2020. Yet only 13% of that had been officially liquidated by that date to reimburse districts for actual expenses, and another 2% was in the process of being reimbursed. The money was gone, but it looked like we hadn’t spent it. By March of this year, districts have spent about 60% of that initial round of funding.
A prime example of this obligated-versus-spent issue that we’ve seen with ESSER school aid is for technology. Many districts placed large orders for laptops or tablets, but they will not receive a bill until the devices are delivered. This funding, like the hypothetical rent or mortgage payment, has been obligated but not yet spent.
Nebraska is not unique. The same thing is playing out in states across the country. In Hawai’i, for instance, officials planned to spend about $7.4 million on broadband-enabled hotspots to allow students and teachers to connect to the Internet from home. By the end of January 2021, officials had spent $1.6 million, but another $5.2 million was obligated but not yet officially spent, pending invoices.
We are grateful that Congress has seen through the inaccurate rhetoric to understand this wonky discrepancy and is on the cusp of approving additional COVID relief to support students. The effects of this pandemic on our nation’s students and education system will linger for years to come. Chiefs are working hard to address it but know we will need additional resources to meet students’ needs – and we are committed to using it efficiently and effectively.
Matthew Blomstedt is the Nebraska commissioner of education and president of the Council of Chief State School Officers Board of Directors.
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