According to a graph posted Thursday by Georgetown University think tank FutureEd, New Jersey ranks near the bottom in spending its federal school COVID-19 assistance money.
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The state spent 26.6% of its $4.7 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, ranking 44th.
Congress provided $189.5 billion to help public and private schools operate remotely, avoid infections, and reduce learning loss early in the pandemic.
According to the graph, most states have spent more money. Iowa spent 55% of its money as of Sept. 30, 2022, compared to 35.6% nationally. New Jersey spent 16% more than Rhode Island, Nebraska, Wisconsin, New York, DC, and Vermont.
The graph contains limitations regarding state disparities. Some provide districts money directly; others, like New Jersey, refund districts for ESSER money utilized; and delays in verifying usage are conceivable.
Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, said districts may have committed to long-term priorities and spent only the first year of a three-year tutoring program, while HVAC projects, typical use of cash, can take years.
Some districts are straining to use the money, which might add to their annual budget.
“It’s incredibly hard to find out how to spend that much money really quickly,” she added. New Jersey, with many local districts, is more likely.
Friday’s Governor’s Office referred a comment request to the state Department of Education. The department’s director of communications, Laura Fredrick, claimed the graph only shows money spent and not projected expenditures. She added the state will help districts maximize funding.
Fredrick said districts receive support through roundtables, monthly meetings with Executive County Superintendents and Business Officials, online tools, and one-on-one assistance.
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After averaging $5 billion a month in the past school year and early summer, expenditure accelerated in August and September. Districts must spend the remaining federal monies by 2024.
Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents over 100 New Jersey districts, said the rating may not capture the whole story.
She stated, “Districts probably have plans for the remaining dollars, but those funds have not been officially assigned in budgets yet, and so have not been tracked” by the federal or state Department of Education.
Julie Borst, executive director of Save Our Schools NJ Community Organizing, a nonprofit schools advocacy group, said some districts plan to use the funding for construction work that can only be done when children are out.
She stated the ranking doesn’t reflect reality.
School construction projects have extensive lead times, and supply chain concerns have prevented some districts from committing money.
Paula White, executive director of JerseyCAN, a schools advocacy group, said the state should assess effective curricular materials and give districts more specific guidance given the considerable funding.
She stated creativity is needed now. “How do we get inventive to do necessary things?”
She said New Jersey should be among the most effective at updating so parents and educators can see how money is being spent and call on local politicians to utilize it wisely.
Rich Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said using COVID relief money to fix gaps in the state’s financing formula, which have prompted some districts to lay off personnel and make other cuts, would require state law to be changed. He believes Gov. Phil Murphy is spending conservatively to avoid a recession.
The New Jersey Children’s Foundation’s executive director, Kyle Rosenkranz, criticized the Murphy administration for “passively funneling those monies via grants to hundreds of…tiny school districts with scant direction beyond minimum legal requirements.”
He decried the slow spending, noting that his kid was in kindergarten at the start of the pandemic and will be in fifth grade by the time schools must spend it.
He stated this “home rule” solution to the biggest learning challenge of our time was meant to prevent political controversy at the price of student development.