The money is part of a $123 billion infusion intended to help schools reopen and recover from the coronavirus pandemic. But with few limits on how the funding can be spent, the Associated Press found that some districts have used large portions to cover athletics projects they couldn’t previously afford.
Critics say it violates the intent of the legislation, which was meant to help students catch up on learning after months of remote schooling. But many schools argue that the projects support students’ physical and mental health, one of the objectives allowed by the federal government.
Representative Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the U.S. House education committee, said the money shouldn’t be used to fund athletics at the expense of academics. It was meant to help students, he said, not sports programs.
“I suspect you can make a case for anything, but the purpose is clear: It’s to open safely, stay open safely and deal with learning loss,” Scott said.
Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said every dollar of pandemic relief spent on sports could be used to expand tutoring, reduce class sizes and take other steps to help students who are struggling academically.
“Can these districts show that all their kids are ready to graduate at the end of this year — college- and career-ready?” she said. “If not, then stop the construction. Stop it right now.”
The funding is part of the American Rescue Plan signed in March by President Joe Biden that sent money to schools, giving larger shares to those with higher poverty. It’s the latest of several rounds of funding Congress funneled to the states to address education needs.
Schools have wide flexibility in how they use the money but only three years to spend it, a deadline that has led some to look for quick purchases that won’t need ongoing funding after the federal money is gone.
In the Roland-Story Community School District in Iowa, there were no objections when the school board voted in May to use $100,000 in pandemic relief on a high school weight room renovation. That allowed the district to double its weightlifting platforms to 12 and add new flooring with customized school branding.
Superintendent Matt Patton called it a “major health and safety improvement,” saying the new floors can be disinfected more easily. He said most of the district’s federal aid went to other costs, including a full-time mental health therapist, special education teachers and expanded summer learning options.