As American children head back to school, states are sitting on more than $130 billion in unspent federal emergency funds that Congress provided during the pandemic. This includes more than $100 billion in funds from the 2021 American Rescue Plan (ARP). New legislation introduced in Congress would put some of this unspent money to use by allowing states and school districts to provide funding directly to parents to help students recover from learning losses.

Billions in unspent federal dollars

As of June 30th, state education agencies had spent $53 billion of the $184 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) provided by Congress since 2020. The table below provides a national overview and state-by-state breakdown.

The Department of Education notes that the spending data does not account for “funds allocated, obligated, or planned for within state and school district budgets.” In other words, it is likely that some of these funds will soon be put to use during the upcoming school year. Nevertheless, many resources will likely remain available that can be used to help students recover from learning losses that occurred during prolonged school closures.

Taking a closer look at the funding provided for K-12 public schools in the 2021 ARP, only $15 billion out of $118 billion in ESSER funds have been spent to date, leaving more than $100 billion unspent.

Recuperating learning losses with the RECOVER Act

While Congress gave states until September 2024 to spend their share of ARP ESSER funds, there is growing evidence that American children need assistance now. Helping children recover learning losses and move forward in their education should be a priority for federal and state policymakers.

On Capitol Hill, Senator Tim Scott (R, S. C.) and Rep. Burgess Owens (R., Utah) introduced the Raising Expectations with Child Opportunity Vouchers for Educational Recovery (RECOVER) Act, which would expand how states and school districts could use unspent ARP funds. The bill would allow states and school districts to award “child opportunity scholarships” to children from low- and middle-income families. Funds could be used for tutoring, books, instructional materials, technology, and other learning costs outside of school. The bill would also allow educational therapies for students with disabilities.

Next week, the Department of Education will release the result of the National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend test, which will provide new insight into the learning losses that occurred during the pandemic.

When Congress returns in September, lawmakers should consider how the $100 billion in unspent K-12 ARP funds could be used in the short-term to help disadvantaged children recover. Expanding the allowable uses of ESSER funds to help children access tutoring and other instructional needs would be a good place to start.