Still flush with billions of dollars in pandemic aid, many schools around the country are pouring funds into padding their payrolls or expanding programs they pursued long before the outbreak.
Many schools have yet to spend the majority of the money they received in three rounds of relief funding since 2020. The latest round, via the American Rescue Plan, provided a $122 billion infusion to schools, bringing the total amount of stimulus money set aside for schools to roughly $190 billion.
Teachers — hiring more of them, increasing their salaries, or offering them bonuses — have received substantial amounts of funding in many states and districts, “making teachers the single largest investment under the plan nationwide,” according to a report from FutureEd.
Supporters of spending the money on teachers say labor shortages could cost schools the personnel they need to help students catch up from remote learning, making teacher pay a reasonable use for money set aside ostensibly for pandemic recovery.
But critics question why funds that schools claimed they desperately needed have largely sat untouched — or gone to things that have little obvious connection to pandemic recovery.
“If it was so urgent during COVID that they have additional resources, then why didn’t they use it?” Jonathan Butcher, the Will Skillman fellow in education at the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Examiner.
As of October, schools had used less than 15% of the money they received through the American Rescue Plan more than a year earlier.
Raising teacher pay and adding more staff to schools was a priority for teachers unions and many public school officials long before states shuttered classrooms to guard against COVID-19.
The temporary nature of the funding complicates the rationale for using it to hire staff, however.
“If you use this money to pay for more positions, then you’re setting yourself up for what they call a fiscal cliff,” Butcher said.
The final round of funding expires in the fall of 2024, which could put some jobs and programs in jeopardy.
“At the most basic level, there’s the mismatch of choosing to use one-time federal money to buy things that commit the district to spend money beyond this year and next. Case in point: using temporary funds to hire a slew of new employees, most with an expectation of continued employment, steady salary raises, and future retirement benefits,” Marguerite Rosa, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, wrote in a piece for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
New York City’s public schools have spent a significant chunk of the relief money on growing its universal pre-K program, which was a wish list item that long predated the pandemic and that critics say has virtually nothing to do with helping students recover from learning loss.
“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,” the state comptroller’s office noted last month in an analysis of how the city school district had used its relief money.
The comptroller found in a separate report that the program faces a $376 million shortfall in 2026 without the continued support of pandemic aid.
It’s a problem many other districts are creating for themselves with their piles of pandemic cash: Officials pour their money into personnel or programs that their pre-pandemic budget couldn’t support.
With future funding levels tied to enrollment, many districts ramping up in size could find themselves facing an even steeper fiscal cliff in less than two years if more students don’t return to public schools.
In Chicago’s public school system, staff positions have grown by roughly 10% over the same two-year time period that enrollment dropped by roughly 18,500 students.
The Chicago Teachers Union and the Illinois Education Association, another major union, have pushed for more teaching and administrative positions amid what they have described as a staffing shortage.
But staffing levels have swelled in recent years, beginning before the pandemic and continuing as the stimulus funds arrived.
“Teachers unions remain bent on pushing the narrative of a teacher shortage, but it seems odd to claim a shortage when there are more teachers employed in Illinois public schools right now than a decade ago, or even in 2019,” the Illinois Policy Institute said in an analysis in September.
In some districts where the local teachers union is strong, a larger chunk of the money has gone to teachers and staff than in others.
“I don’t think it’s too much to say that in a place that is heavily influenced by the union, if they are hiring more employees, they are adding conceivably to the union’s strength,” Butcher said. ”It’s in the union’s interests for schools to hire more employees.”
In Chicago, for example, salaries and benefits for teachers took up the biggest share of spending from the third round of stimulus funds, according to a Chalkbeat report.
Chicago Public Schools proposed adding 1,600 new jobs to the system in 2023.
And like in New York City, Chicago school officials, flush with stimulus cash, have moved to dump millions of dollars into a universal pre-K program that then-Mayor Rahm Emmanuel launched in 2018, two years before the pandemic.
The investment in expanding the program comes even as the school system struggles to fill thousands of the open seats it already has.
In Michigan, some districts used pandemic cash to offer generous bonuses to teachers; public school workers in Flint each received $7,500 last year, for example.
Overall, the state does not have a problem with teacher retention. Michigan public schools had 11,000 more employees on the payroll for the 2021-2022 school year than the year before, according to the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.
But that did not stop the state’s Democratic leaders from pushing for retention and recruitment incentives for teachers thanks to a combination of pandemic aid and a state budget surplus.
In Oregon, 1,508 more teachers worked for the state’s public schools this academic year than five years ago, while enrollment over that same five-year window fell by more than 27,000 students, according to a report published last month by the Oregon Department of Education.
That was reportedly an all-time high for the number of teachers but a two-decade low for the number of students.
In some cases, teachers have advocated directly for the pandemic funds to go to themselves.
In a small Arkansas district, for example, teachers overwhelmingly voted for the district to scrap plans to invest in mobile classrooms and ventilation systems in favor of giving themselves a one-time $5,000 bonus.
The district’s superintendent had asked teachers to weigh in after a state panel pressured the district to spend the money on personnel.
Roughly 1 in 10 school districts planned to use pandemic funds to pay teacher bonuses, an analysis by FutureEd found in October.
Teachers unions and some education specialists say hiring and retaining teachers is a necessary component of pandemic recovery because many students need more support than they did prior to 2020.
And supporters of using relief funding on pre-K or other seemingly unrelated programs argue that anything attracting families to the public school system could boost enrollment in ways that help school districts recover in the long term.
But critics say the hiring must be done strategically to be effective.
“I think there’s a legitimate case to be made that there are certain positions that we need more of, and they tend to be the high-skilled teaching positions: helping children with special needs [and] advanced math and science,” Butcher said.
“However, it is not true that we just need more teachers,” he added. “To say that there is a national teacher shortage and we need to hire more teachers is false.”