(The Center Square) – The American Rescue Plan delivered more than $5 billion in stimulus to Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts, but senators last week urged caution when spending the “windfall.”
Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday that some of the money comes with strings attached so that schools focus on pandemic-induced learning loss first.
But the department can’t dictate how each dollar is spent – and districts face many needs, most the result of ongoing funding challenges that predate COVID-19.
“We can’t dictate how schools are going to expend their resources, but what we can do is provide the right guardrails to avoid the lessons we’ve learned in the past,” he said.
Those lessons stem from the last time Pennsylvania received federal stimulus during the height of the Great Recession in 2009 and 2010. Lawmakers boosted education funding with the infusions of cash, leaving the next General Assembly with a $1 billion hole to plug.
The 2011 budget passed with $864 million less allocated toward basic education than the prior year. Some lawmakers say the ripple effects of this decision contribute to the ongoing structural imbalance in the way the state funds public schools and serve as the root of inequities reported across districts.
Education Committee Chairman Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, urged the department “to use these things in a way … so that we don’t create any fiscal tsunami in the future by us not using this money appropriately.”
The federal stimulus bill mandates districts withhold 20% of the funding to address learning loss. Another 5% of additional state dollars come with the same requirement, Ortega said.
“We’ve been working a whole lot to understand that learning gaps have been very pronounced since the start of this pandemic,” he said.
The department will prioritize summer enrichment programs and professional training to help teachers support students as they recover skills lost during the pandemic. Districts have until 2024 to expend the funds, Ortega said, “signifying this is going to be a long haul.”
“We have a lot of money coming into the commonwealth and the districts and using this in a responsible cannot only help our system now, but make sure we’re not causing anything to impact our long-term sustainability moving forward,” Martin said.