Questions remain on spending federal schools money

The State Board of Education on Wednesday took up how Florida is using billions of dollars in federal pandemic aid for schools, but the state has not submitted a plan for spending the latest --- and largest --- pot of stimulus money.

The board, meeting in Miami, held a discussion about three waves of federal school money set aside for Florida, but it did not specify how much of the money the state has already spent.

Nearly $11 billion has been earmarked for Florida schools, according to the state Department of Education, with more than $770 million from the CARES Act stimulus law passed by Congress in March 2020; $3.1 billion from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act passed in December, and $7 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act passed this March.

Under federal guidelines, the state department is given control over 10 percent of the funding for Florida, with the remaining 90 percent going directly to school districts. The state can continue using money from the CARES Act through Sept. 30, 2022, and money from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act through Sept. 30, 2023.

But Florida missed a June 7 deadline to submit a plan to the federal government for spending American Rescue Plan Act money, citing a delay "due to (the) legislative session and required State Board review," according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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Eric Hall, a senior chancellor with the state Department of Education, said Wednesday that the agency is still working on getting a plan together.

"Right now our team is finishing up the application, we are continuing to work to engage our stakeholders," Hall said. "This funding, which is over $7 billion … we have until September of 2024 to fully expend. I bring up that date because we have the next three school years to strategically use these dollars to drive outcomes."

Although Hall described various objectives for using federal money the state has received, he did not detail how much of the money has been spent.

Hall told the board that the department had a "very intentional plan" for using the CARES Act funds.

"We designed a plan with the CARES Act," Hall said, "that didn’t just look at any of our individual service areas alone. It looked at a comprehensive strategy from our youngest learners in child care."

According to the department, the CARES Act funds were targeted at keeping schools open and providing a "virtual safety net" of online instruction during the 2020-2021 school year, which was heavily disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The department reported prioritizing civics education initiatives, progress monitoring efforts, and workforce education programs with money received through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, the second round of federal funds

Florida’s failure to meet the deadline to detail how it plans to spend its American Rescue Plan Act funds has drawn criticism from President Joe Biden’s administration.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona criticized Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran for the delay, which has prevented local school districts from receiving billions of dollars that they would have control overspending.

"Despite the requirement in the ARP Act that ‘each state shall make allocations… to local educational agencies in an expedited and timely manner and, to the extent practicable, not later than 60 days after the receipt of such funds’ --- that is, by May 24 --- the Florida Department of Education has made none of these funds available to Florida’s school districts for their intended purpose," Cardona wrote in a letter Friday to DeSantis and Corcoran.

But members of the State Board of Education on Wednesday made the case for being deliberate with the federal money.

"I’ll be looking forward to keeping track of how those dollars go, not just to put Band-Aids on things, but how they really go to edify longstanding programs that really are going to put us further ahead," board member Marva Johnson said.

Hall echoed Johnson’s sentiments during his presentation to the board.

"It’s not about just giving a lot of funding out and hoping that something happens. It’s being intentional with these investments," Hall said.

The Department of Education reported surveying teachers, school leaders, students, and other people involved in schools about their top priorities for using American Rescue Plan Act funds and published data from the roughly 2,500 responses.

Out of five categories, the highest percentage of respondents said they wanted the money spent on expanding student support for reading and math achievement.