Decades-low eighth-grade reading and math scores are no reason to be discouraged, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Wednesday, because the Biden administration's "historic" COVID-era school spending is poised to turn the tide. In many districts, a large portion of those funds have already been spent on lucrative staff bonuses.
A National Assessment of Educational Progress report published Wednesday found that math and reading scores among U.S. 13-year-olds are at their lowest levels in decades. Cardona responded to those findings by praising "positive results" in student achievement, arguing that the "historic investments and resources" provided by President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan would "reverse the damage." In school districts across the country, however, a large portion of those funds did not go to more tutoring or new school materials. Instead, they funded bonuses for teachers and administrators.
In North Carolina, for example, the Wake County Public School System from March 2020 to April 2023 spent 78.5 percent of its total pandemic relief funding on salaries and employee benefits, according to the district. Chicago Public Schools—a district where union teachers repeatedly refused to return to the classroom during COVID—similarly spent 77 percent of its pandemic money on staff bonuses, salaries, and benefits. In Tennessee, meanwhile, the state's comptroller found that a district funneled nearly $28,000 to one administrator alone. And in Nebraska, Lincoln Public Schools attempted to use COVID relief dollars to issue across-the-board teacher bonuses, but the state's Department of Education said no.
The use of so-called emergency COVID funds to pay for five-figure staff bonuses reflects the stark divide between Republicans and Democrats on education policy. Democrats generally balk at school choice, shooting down taxpayer funding for charter schools in favor of additional public school spending. For Republicans, that spending is already at an all-time high with little to show for it and showcases the need to pursue alternative options rather than funneling more money to powerful teachers' unions working to pay out their members.
"It turns out the hundreds of billions in taxpayer money that was 'direly needed to safely reopen schools and improve infrastructure' was a lie," Nicki Neily, founder and president of parental rights group Parents Defending Education, said in response to districts' using federal COVID funds to pay for staff bonuses. "The same teachers' unions that kept schools closed are now misusing the taxpayers' money to smooth things over with their growingly dissatisfied members through bonuses and raises. What a slap in the face to families."
The Department of Education did not return a request for comment.
Biden's American Rescue Plan sent tens of billions of dollars to K-12 schools, money the administration said would support efforts to "reopen K-12 schools safely" and "equitably expand opportunities for students who need it most." Two-thirds of the money, however, was disbursed almost immediately and thus went to schools before the administration could approve their plans on what to do with the money. The remaining third went to schools after each state submitted plans meant to ensure the funding would be used responsibly. None of those spending plans mentioned teacher salary or bonuses, and the Biden administration said federal COVID funds should not go to "bonuses, merit pay, or similar expenditures, unless related to disruptions or closures resulting from COVID-19."
Wednesday's National Assessment of Education Progress report details how 13-year-olds scored on a federal standardized test that focuses on basic reading and arithmetic. Students scored an average of just 256 out of 500 in reading and just 271 out of 500 in math. Those scores are the lowest seen since 2004 for reading and 1990 for math.
Well-funded school districts are not immune to those struggles. Baltimore's public schools, for example, rank among the worst in the state despite their status as some of the highest-funded in the country. The city spends around $20,000 per student, yet 93 percent and 79 percent of its students are not proficient in math and reading, respectively, according to a report released by the state’s education department earlier this year. Taxpayers launched a lawsuit in January 2022 alleging the district falsely inflated its student enrollment to gain more funding and falsified student records to push failing students through the system.
Still, Cardona argued Wednesday that America's children are in good hands.
"The latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress is further evidence of what the Biden-Harris administration recognized from Day One: that the pandemic would have a devastating impact on students’ learning across the country and that it would take years of effort and investment to reverse the damage as well as address the 11-year decline that preceded it," he said in a statement. "While this latest data reminds us how far we still need to go, I'm encouraged that the historic investments and resources provided by the American Rescue Plan and the Department of Education are beginning to show positive results."