JASON, Mrs. — The air conditioning stopped working when students returned from summer vacation last year to Jim Hill High School in Jackson, Mississippi, forcing them to learn in sweltering heat. By Thanksgiving, the students were huddled under blankets because the heat wasn’t working.
Along the way, students dealt with broken locker room showers, plumbing issues and a litany of other problems in the nearly 60-year-old school building.
“There were times when we were cold, there were times when we were hot,” said Mentia Trippeter, a 17-year-old senior. “There have been times where she rained and spilled, we’ve been drowning. We’re through it, we’re through it, man.”
Like other schools serving low-income communities across the country, Jim Hill has long grappled with neglected infrastructure that has made it difficult for students to learn. So when Jackson Public Schools received tens of millions of dollars in federal COVID relief funds, they decided to put much of the windfall toward repairing heating and plumbing problems, some of which caused the school to turn around. temporarily to remote learning.
For poorer school districts, deciding what to do with that money has involved a difficult trade-off: working on long-term academic recovery or fixing long-standing infrastructure needs.
In all, the federal government has allocated $190 billion in aid to help schools recover during the pandemic, more than four times the amount the US Department of Education spends on K-12 schools in a typical year. And with few conditions.
An Associated Press analysis of the spending plans of school districts across the country found that the poorest districts in each state are much more likely than wealthier districts to spend emergency relief funds on upgrading their buildings or transportation systems.
Jackson’s academic needs are no less pressing. Most students in the district learned virtually for a year and a half during the pandemic and math test scores plummeted by the equivalent of more than a full year of learning, according to the Harvard and Stanford Education Recovery Scorecard. But school officials did not want to miss a rare opportunity to fix infrastructure problems, some of which date back decades.
William Merritt, the school district’s chief of staff, said the funds gave the district the ability to “give our students the tools that other students in affluent districts have.”
The data for the AP analysis came from education market research firm Burbio, which reviewed how more than 6,000 districts across the country, representing more than 75% of the nation’s public school students, planned to spend their money federal aid. The data covered the final and largest round of federal aid to schools, totaling $122 billion.
The AP found that school districts with the highest percentage of children living in poverty—the poorest 20% of districts in each state—were more than three times as likely as wealthier school districts to spend money building new schools. new buildings or classrooms. School districts with high levels of poverty were also more than twice as likely to include money to repair facilities.
“Poor districts are doing it because they’re chasing emergencies,” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund.
Infrastructure is a prime example of longstanding inequalities in school funding. While wealthy districts may rely on local tax revenue to pay for major improvement projects, such as installing state-of-the-art heating and ventilation systems, poorer districts are often unable to spend more money over time on short-term fixes. term.
In Texas, the Victoria Independent School District is also grappling with competing infrastructure needs and recovery from the pandemic. He plans to spend half of the $28.4 million he received in the latest round of aid funding on academics, teacher retention and student support that includes social-emotional behavior specialists.
But the other 50% of the money goes into improving air quality, like upgrading ventilation systems. Superintendent Quintin Shepherd says he’d love to spend more on counselors and less to fix broken air conditioners, but there’s no way kids can safely learn in a 100-degree Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) classroom. ).
“We got into education to improve educational outcomes and life expectancy. It’s a difficult position to have to make these impossible decisions,” Shepherd said.
Some have argued that the money should not be spent on infrastructure projects, which can take years to complete and often with no immediate benefit to students. But the government only required that 20% of emergency relief funds be spent on tackling learning loss.
US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a recent speech that the relief funds were “intended to speed reopening and recovery, not fill decades of underinvestment in education funding and student support.” .
Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Economics Lab, said it was right for the government to allow a high degree of flexibility in how aid funds are spent, rather than bog districts down in red tape.
In Jackson, officials chose to spend more than half of the $109 million the district received in the latest round of federal funding to repair facilities at schools like Jim Hill.
Students at the school generally agreed that it needed infrastructure improvements. Still, when asked what they would do if they were in charge of spending that money in the district, some had bigger wishes.
“I think we could hire more teachers to teach different types of subjects,” said Elijah Fisher, a 17-year-old junior. But, he admitted, he would first use the money to fix the drainage system around the school.
Overall, Jackson officials are confident they are making the right investment.
Although much of the funding went toward infrastructure needs, the school district also purchased laptops for each student and invested in after-school programs. Jim Hill now offers a nearly year-round school with the summer period dedicated to field trips and “learn-by-doing” experiences.
The school’s principal, Bobby Brown, said the money spent on infrastructure needs is badly needed, though not enough to address decades of inequality in the majority black school system.
“Hearing from students, and from them having generations of families that have similar experiences,” Brown said, “this also sheds light on the types of investment that we have, or the lack of investment that we have in communities where people are looking like us. .”
The Associated Press educational team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.