Reports on How School Systems Spent Federal COVID Aid Vary in Detail, Usefulness

There’s a Blueprint webpage dedicated to reporting how Maryland’s local school systems spent federal COVID-19 relief funding. However, the level of detail and format of reporting vary greatly between school systems, making it difficult for county and state governments to see the whole picture.

Available on the Blueprint Accountability and Implementation Board (AIB)’ website is publicly-accessible reporting on how each of Maryland’s 24 school systems spent COVID-19 pandemic relief funds from the federal government. Maryland received about $3 million in COVID-19 American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funds. The state was recently highlighted by a national bipartisan organization of superintendents and state education leaders for its successful use of federal funding.

A webpage on the AIB’s website outlines how each of Maryland’s local education agencies (LEAs) spent ESSER funding in 2021 and 2022:

Each link to a series of reports, one from each LEA that has submitted ESSER reporting.

Access the COVID-19 federal aid expense reports.

Notably, this reporting is required by state law, as one of the LEA reports noted:

On or before December 1 each year, in 2021 through 2023, each county board of education, including  Baltimore City, shall report to the Governor. In accordance with§ 2-1257 of the State Government  Article, the General Assembly, and the Accountability and Implementation Board on the county board’s use of federal funding that was received to address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; on education and State funding received to implement the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, including a description of the amount of funding spent on student instruction. 

What is reported, and what’s left out?

While the general reporting provided by the 24 LEAs is beneficial for county and state government leaders to better understand how they have spent federal pandemic aid, the reporting dramatically varies between the school systems. Some school systems largely leave out comprehensive spending details, while others provide spending details but not narratives explaining the uses of spent funds. Both exact expenditure data and explanation of expenses are necessary to adequately inform policy decisions and state and county budget planning.

For example, Allegany County’s 2021 reporting generally shows what ESSER money was allocated for the school system and how much was spent by the LEA, in general, categorical buckets. The reporting continues with narrative explanations for how the LEA spent the 2021 federal funds, such as 1:1 tutoring, technological updates, and more. Still, it does not detail the amounts spent on these initiatives.

Juxtaposed is Calvert County Public Schools’ 2021 report, which details funding but does not provide a comprehensive narrative behind specific uses of ESSER aid.

On the other hand, Anne Arundel County Public Schools submitted exact spending data and narrated what funds were used as part of its 2021 report.

The need for more comprehensive, timely data

Detailed, comprehensive information from all 24 school systems on exactly how much was spent on which initiatives described by the County is necessary for all stakeholders — the AIB, MSDE, legislators, county governments, and the public — to fully understand the actions taken by local school systems to combat challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and move Maryland’s students forward. The same is true for all education spending, whether funds come from the county, state, or federal government.

County governments fund roughly half of all public education spending in Maryland based on local wealth and full-time student enrollment. Universally, education funding consistently makes up the most significant portion of any given county’s annual budget. However, funding public education has increasingly become challenging for counties big and small, urban and rural. The problem of how to fund education while responsibly balancing budgets of taxpayer funds is only expected to continue deepening — especially under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future (the “Blueprint”), which mandates significant increases in local and State funding of public education.

Historically, education spending at the local level has operated in a sort of “black box”: local boards of education receive funding from county governments, the State, and various federal funding and then manage and spend funds through guarded and opaque processes.

Unfortunately, this has created a certain level of disjointed access and understanding to comprehensive, accurate, timely data on education spending and needs. This hinders counties’ ability to develop and adopt responsive and impactful budgets that fully address the many requirements and unique needs of modern public education.

MACo and Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City have long sought more accurate and timely information on local education spending to best address needs and better inform priority-setting. So much so that transparency in education spending was a prime topic at the 2023 MACo Winter Conference and was adopted as a MACo 2023 Legislative Initiative. Ultimately, Maryland’s students suffer when counties do not have access to the complete picture.

Learn more about this MACo priority.

Access 2021 ESSER reporting.

Access 2022 ESSER reporting.