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Education

Missouri among last states to approve federal funding for schools

Erika Johnson, a kindergarten teacher at the Stix Early Childhood Center, reads a book about snowmen to her students.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Erika Johnson, a kindergarten teacher at the Stix Early Childhood Center, reads to her class last week in Forest Park Southeast. Johnson has been tutoring children on weekends to make up for learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Missouri is one of the last states to approve spending of federal funding for K-12 education from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The state legislature has until March 24 to pass legislation to appropriate the $1.96 billion that education leaders say is part of an unprecedented windfall in federal funding for schools.

“We have quite a lot more money in the system than we're accustomed to,” said Chris Neale, assistant commissioner for the office of federal relief programs in Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The Missouri House of Representatives and Senate have each passed an appropriations bill that included this money, but the bills must match before they can go to the governor for a signature.

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Education leaders across the state are calling on the legislature to take action before the deadline.

“I think nervous anxiousness and being somewhat optimistic probably are all descriptors of where people are at,” said Doug Hayter, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators. “It is a tremendous opportunity for public education to do a lot of great things for kids, once this money is finally appropriated.”

What it will go toward

Ninety percent of this funding will go directly to school districts and other local education agencies, like charter schools.

Schools across the state have submitted plans to Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that outline how they will spend their money. They’ll focus on things like HVAC and air quality updates, mental health support for students and furniture that can accommodate social distancing.

A large percentage is also supposed to directly address pandemic learning loss, although some educators take issue with that term. Leaders in St. Louis Public Schools call this “unfinished learning,” and more than half of their proposal for funding is meant to bring students up to speed after nearly two years of interrupted education.

Erika Johnson is one of many teachers who are working directly with kids to address these gaps. She teaches kindergarten at Stix Early Childhood Center in St. Louis Public Schools.

At the beginning of this school year, she and her fellow educators noticed their students were behind where they normally would be. They were struggling with things like writing their names and alphabet recognition.

An exterior image of the brick The Stix Early Childhood Center.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The Stix Early Childhood Center last week in Forest Park Southeast.

The teachers talked about the problem with their principal, and in January the school launched a Saturday morning tutoring program. Johnson volunteered to teach.

“This is a couple of hours on a Saturday, we will see the rewards at the end of the school year,” Johnson said. “They need the basics to be the best selves they can be.”

The tutoring program is being paid for by one of the earlier rounds of federal coronavirus relief funding. District leaders hope to expand these programs and eventually pay for them with the money from the American Rescue Plan Act.

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St. Louis Public Schools stands to receive the most money of any school district in the state — more than $103 million.

“The amount of dollars that are being allocated towards school districts are truly unprecedented,” said Claire Crapo, St. Louis Public Schools’ director of elementary and secondary school emergency relief implementation.

The $1.7 billion that will go directly to school districts in Missouri was awarded based on Title I funding, which is a federal measure of the number of students living in poverty in a district. After St. Louis Public Schools, the other districts receiving the most money are Kansas City, Springfield, Hazelwood and Riverview Gardens.

Looming deadlines

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, by the end of last year, Missouri was one of just four states that had not spent any of the education funding from this COVID-19 relief law.

Like Missouri, Rhode Island’s legislature has not appropriated the money. Wyoming and Michigan had not spent any funds at the end of last year either, but they have at least taken steps to approve it.

In Missouri, state agencies don’t have the authority to spend money unless it’s in the state budget. The legislature has until March 24 to appropriate the funds, but there are also deadlines for spending it.

This latest round of funding has to be spent before September 2024, which means districts are under pressure to start putting bids in as soon as possible, said Sasha Pudelski, director of advocacy for the School Superintendents Association.

“Missouri is incredibly behind the curve, because our superintendents in Missouri have not even had the chance to start to do some of the bidding to get some of the estimates for this work, and they don't have the money in hand yet,” Pudelski said. “They can't create contracts. And so it really puts Missouri school districts in a disadvantage.”

Supply chain issues are putting additional pressure on school administrators, said Hayter of the Missouri Association of School Administrators.

“The sooner we can get the money appropriated, the better for all of our school districts in the state,” Hayter said.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Clarification: A graphic was updated to include information on funding for charter schools.

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