By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
Alabama K-12 schools are getting another $2 billion of federal relief funding from the President Joe Biden-pushed American Rescue Plan Act, state officials said Wednesday. That’s on top of a $1.1 billion schools received from the first two rounds of federal relief.
In all, federal relief money to K-12 and higher education in Alabama will total about $4.5 billion in the three approved by Congress in the last year. About $3.2 billion of that is for K-12 alone, with much of it going directly to local school districts, according to Kirk Fulford, deputy director of the Legislative Services Agency’s Fiscal Division.
“The investment of these funds is going to be critical,” Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, said during a presentation Wednesday to the House education budget committee.
These education funds are separate from the $4.5 billion allocated to state and local governments under the Biden plan, as previously reported by Alabama Daily News.They’re also separate from the $1.7 billion the state received last year, some of which was directed by state leaders to education.
The money is in multiple funds spread over three allocations. Spending deadlines and restrictions vary. Exact details on the latest, largest pool of money aren’t yet available.
“There are a lot of complexities here, this committee is going to need to understand everything the best we can,” Poole said.
Federal COVID-19 relief money for education in Alabama
Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund
- GEER I – $48.85 million
- GEER II – $66.85 million(including $45.5 million for private schools)
- TOTAL – $115.7 million
Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund
- ESSER I – $216.9 million
- ESSER II – $899.5 million
- ESSER III – $2.020 billion
- TOTAL $3.136 billion
Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund
- HEER I – $274.1 million
- HEER II – $338.3 million
- HEER III – $591.4 million
- TOTAL $1.204 billion
Non-public Schools – $42.3 million
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – $46.3 million
TOTAL ALL – $4.544 billion
Source: Kirk Fulford, Legislative Services Agency
While much of the funds will flow directly to local school systems, Superintendent Eric Mackey told lawmakers that the state department of education is requiring a spending plan from local systems.
“We’re requiring the districts to go through a process to show they are addressing student learning loss before they spend on anything else.
The first two rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money could be used to prepare for, prevent and respond to COVID-19, including sanitation and PPE supplies. Allowable uses for local systems include: Addressing learning loss, providing mental health services; testing, remote learning, and upgrades to improve air quality.
“You can’t just go buy new air-conditioning, you have to show it has virus-mitigating factors,” Mackey said.
Committee member Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, said he’s pleased the newest funding would be distributed directly to local boards of education.
“Our local leaders know the needs of our students better than bureaucrats in Washington or Montgomery,” Kiel said. “Because this money must be spent by 2024, I have recommended to our local systems that they do not start programs or hire employees that they expect to fund in 2025 and beyond. This one time funding should be invested in projects that impact student achievement in the near term.”
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, is on the budget committee and chairs the House Education Policy Committee. She said with proper planning, the federal money could be used to improve student achievement and address learning gaps between K-12 student groups.
“(There need to be) wise decisions so that the funding is used for something that improves student achievement, that focuses on lifting them, and I would hope that includes professional development,” Collins said. “I hope that includes programs that have a proven, positive impact.”
Mackey said that this year, the students with the best learning experience are having class in-person. But for some systems, that hasn’t been possible, at least for all students.
He also said there is still a small percentage of students who have disappeared.
“They have just dropped off the rolls this year,” he said. “I think it will get better by next fall.”
Fulford told lawmakers he doesn’t often give advice on how funds should be spent, but in this situation, he has one suggestion.
“Try your best and to encourage your (local school), your college or your university to focus this money as much as possible on one-time uses,” he said. “As we learned with the Great Recession when we got (federal funding), we had a couple of situations where we propped up programs. That was great until the federal money ran out.”
Then, state funds were needed to replace the federal funds, Fulford said.
“If we’re not careful, with this massive amount of money, we’ll wind up in a situation in 2024 where we’re trying to fill the gap for programs that were propped up with federal money.”
Poole agreed, noting much of the money has to be spent by late 2023.
“At some points, these funds will cease,” he said. “That was a problem coming out of the Great Recession for the state budget … when the federal funds stopped, we had some problems on the state budget side. We need to be careful that we’re not setting up or propping up programs that we cannot then sustain.”
Fulford said the Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds also flow directly to the colleges and universities.
The third round of HEER money, about $591.4 million for Alabama, is to be spent by September 2023 and at least 50% is to be spent on emergency financial aid to students. Other allowable usages include replacing lost revenue and reimbursement for emergency expenses.
“This funding is critical for our higher education institutions following the impact of the pandemic on our campuses,” Jim Purcell, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, told Alabama Daily News. “The first round of federal aid to institutions came with a short timeframe to spend the funds. This package has a longer shelf life which will give institutions more time to prioritize their spending needs.”
Local Distribution of First Round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (CARES Act, March 2020)
Distribution of first round of Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (CARES ACT, March 2020)
Distribution of second round of Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (Second COVID-19 bill, December 2020)