By John Haughey
(The Center Square) – South Carolina’s 79 public school districts have received, or anticipate collecting soon, a combined $2.94 billion in federal pandemic assistance with local school boards accorded wide discretion in how to spend the “unprecedented” plug of one-time money.
State legislators have little authority to intervene in how boards spend the direct allocations to districts, nor can the federal money – three times what South Carolina schools collectively received the previous year – be used to supplant state education funding.
The South Carolina Department of Education (DOE) has requested districts submit plans on how they will spend the money, to ensure the allocations are legal, with emphasis on academic recovery for students that fell behind because of the pandemic’s disruption.
At least 20% of the federal relief money must be funneled into programs to help students catch-up academically. Only 30% of the state’s third-through-eighth graders are projected to meet grade-level proficiency in math and English this year.
State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman has required school boards seek public input for spending the money, urging parents and taxpayers to attend board meetings and, “Ask questions.”
Including two districts operated by the state and the 79 public school districts, more than $3.3 billion in federal pandemic aid for K-12 education has been earmarked for South Carolina schools in three funding packages.
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) component of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved in March 2020 delivered $197.4 million to state schools. According to the DOE, districts had spent about 70% of the CARES Act money by early July, meaning about $60 million remained in district coffers.
But by early July, South Carolina districts had only spent 1% of the $846.4 million they were allocated in the $900 billion Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, known as “CARES II,” adopted by Congress in December.
In addition, South Carolina schools have not touched the $1.9 billion they will receive from the American Rescue Plan, the third $1.9 trillion pandemic assistance package adopted earlier this year.
South Carolina also significantly boosting state education spending. The state’s $31 billion Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22) budget, in effect since July 1, features $5.7 billion in education spending that includes teachers’ pay raises, a boost of $1,100 in per-pupil funding and a significant increase in pre-K allocations.
Under House Bill 4100, which includes $10.7 billion in state general revenue appropriations, South Carolina schools will spend a record $15,276 per child during the 2021-22 school year, a 7.37% increase from the previous year.
The pay raise for teachers and other benefits boosts are critical to remedying South Carolina’s teachers shortage. As of February, 515 openings remained statewide, representing 1% of the state’s K-12 teaching positions, according to the South Carolina Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement.
According to a National Education Association (NEA) analysis, even without the one-time federal funding plugs from the three Congressional packages, total spending on education this fiscal year will be $13.546 billion, a one-year increase of $570 million, the eighth-highest increase in the nation.
The dramatic funding boosts come as South Carolina was one of 29 states that saw K-12 enrollment in public schools decline this year after the pandemic-disrupted the 2019-20 school year.
Overall public school enrollment declined by 3% nationwide and 3.27% in South Carolina. According to the DOE, 786,969 were enrolled in the 2019-20 school year and 761,290 for the 2020-21 school – a decline of 25,779 students, or the equivalent of the state’s seventh-largest school district.