(Jan. 20, 2021) On behalf of our members, Kentucky’s 857 locally elected school board members, KSBA is grateful for the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding that Congress recently enacted. These additional – and much needed – funds will help our school leaders address the educational impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student success. The overall level of funding, while significant, is limited in scope and duration. Funds are specifically directed for triage of the pandemic’s devastating effects on our public schools’ students, staff and resources. It is intended to help us shoulder expenses already incurred, all of which were unbudgeted and unforeseen. The funds are also intended to help teachers assess and address the learning loss of their students, to help district leaders afford facility improvements to mitigate virus transmission, and to help schools cover personnel expenses from additional health staffing, COVID testing, and emergency leave for quarantined employees. This one-time allocation of funding is desperately needed if districts are to withstand a once-in-a-century crisis.
The significance of this investment is not lost on education leaders, but we must not lose sight of the challenges that predated COVID-19, challenges that will remain after the pandemic ends. We must carefully consider that the federal funding is allocated among districts through a formula based largely on student poverty. Our districts will receive widely variable amounts of this emergency relief, even though no community was spared from the brunt of the pandemic.
It bears repeating that ESSER money is relief for the effects of COVID-19 and does not solve longstanding funding issues of both equity and adequacy which currently impede the progress of our constitutionally established system of common schools.
Federal relief does not address the need for an increase in base SEEK allocations which may restore equity across communities. This one-time federal relief does not ensure sustained, recurring funding for classroom-level student programming like our family resource and youth service centers (FRYSCs). It does not address the needs of students in foster care, thousands of whom attend our schools, nor the increasing number of our students with special needs caused by neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) - largely a result of the opioid epidemic that hit us long before COVID-19. This funding may help us supplement instruction and supports to close achievement gaps, but we must recognize that those existing gaps were exacerbated by the pandemic, not a product of it. Our local communities needed help to address these and other crises before last March, and they continue to need state support in confronting them now.
As our elected lawmakers sit down to craft a state budget during a short session, KSBA joins with parents, teachers and school leaders throughout the Commonwealth in recognizing that substantial state investment in our schools is needed if we are to press forward and come out of this pandemic stronger than when it began. For us to consider the ESSER funding as anything more than acute pandemic relief meant to right the ship would be shortsighted. It should be viewed, rather, as an emergency lifeboat to supplement adequate, sustainable support for the success of all students and the promise of a brighter future for all Kentuckians.