Washington’s education department hasn’t adequately tracked how schools are spending hundreds of millions in federal aid earmarked for pandemic learning loss, according to an audit ordered by state lawmakers.

The report says the agency failed to collect sufficient data about interventions meant to help kids recover from learning loss, and has not monitored whether the investments are helping students improve academically.

The report also underscored one of the tragic outcomes of school closures — that students who were already behind academically suffered the most when schools were shuttered. The pandemic exacerbated racial disparities and hit poor schools hardest, the report said.

Committee chair Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, said he found it “disturbing” that as of last September, 74% of districts’ federal aid expenditures were documented in a category called “other.”

But officials with the state Office for Superintendent of Public Instruction claim it has multiple reporting systems for tracking and monitoring federal aid spending and student progress. It will only do additional monitoring if the federal education department mandates it, the agency said.

Pollet said the state “shouldn’t rely on the federal government to decide what kind of reporting we need to do. We in the state of Washington need to have a conversation with OSPI about doing better about federal requirements.”


A 2021 state law required Washington school districts to report to OSPI how they were using the pandemic funds. OSPI told the federal education department it would review these plans and evaluate the effects of the interventions districts use to help struggling students.

The audit recommended OSPI establish a process and start monitoring the plans and strategies school districts are using for academic recovery by June.

State superintendent Chris Reykdal did not testify during Wednesday’s hearing, instead sending two OSPI representatives. In a March 14 letter responding to the audit report, he wrote that attempting to distinguish the effect of federal relief dollars from other school funding sources “is not practical or reasonable” because they are intertwined.

Washington state school systems received $2.9 billion in federal relief, and $334 million of that money was to be used for “evidence-based” strategies to combat learning loss. As of September 2022, districts had spent 45% of these funds, about $1.2 billion.

In the letter, Reykdal said that the aid averaged 5% of the investments in Washington schools during fiscal years 2022 and 2023. He said that Congress “was very intentional” in making the funds “incredibly flexible” to allow schools to address their changing needs during the pandemic, be it a need for a technology, staff or air filters, among other things.

Leaders of the audit committee questioned whether OSPI was doing enough with the funding to address academic recovery.


“I am concerned that we need to be monitoring — how are you going to move forward?” asked Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, the audit committee’s vice chair, addressing OSPI representatives. “Because this just isn’t a COVID thing now. The kids lost a lot during COVID. They’re not going to get it back. But we need to do what we can to help them along.”

A lack of transparency on how education relief aid is being spent has been a national problem. Congress gave schools an unprecedented $200 billion to help them weather the pandemic. These funds came without any restrictions for how they must be spent — with one notable exception: At least 20% of the largest aid installment had to be spent on learning loss. But the federal government hasn’t cracked down on states based on how well they document the outcomes of the aid. 

Washington has stood out for being particularly stingy with data on student outcomes, said Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University education finance professor.

“The [state superintendent] has not been focused on reading outcomes, math outcomes or any other outcomes that can be measured over a long period of time to track kids’ progress,” said Roza, who has studied how states are using their relief funds. “I worry that there has been lack of OSPI leadership on connecting ESSER with student outcomes.” ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, is the federal name for the $200 billion package.

Wilson said test score data in the report should spur OSPI to do more, and with greater urgency.

“Why, with the added concerns of the pandemic learning loss and with 1 in 3 students not meeting grade level achievement in math and English, are they only monitoring to federal standards?” Wilson wrote in an email after the hearing. “Shouldn’t there be a state monitoring standard they should be striving for? All of this sounds like basic accountability to me. If OSPI can’t do better than this, you have to ask how it defines ‘equity.’ “


Maria Flores, executive director of OSPI’s Center for the Improvement of Student Learning, told the committee that “every educator in Washington state is working to close those gaps right now. And we believe that the next two years of data are going to show significant progress.”

She said OSPI will work with the federal education department to provide any additional information it requests.

Pollet said he wants OSPI to look at district reports to identify what strategies and interventions are working for students who have fallen furthest behind so that “we can make the best investments as a state.”

There were early signs that the state’s record-keeping on these funds lacked transparency. In 2021, the federal Department of Education withheld some of the learning loss aid because the state hadn’t shown it required schools to submit sufficient plans for how to spend the funds. The Department released the funds based on additional data submitted by OSPI.

The data the state eventually shared still pales in comparison to what other states like California required of their school districts, Roza said. 

“One of the links they provided to school district plans didn’t even mention ESSER,” Roza said. 


The state currently collects data on ESSER funds under broad accounting categories, such as teacher salaries, academic supplies and learning loss. The majority of funds have been spent on salary-related costs. The money must be spent by fall 2024. 

Other states have gone further to measure the outcomes of their investments. Both Tennessee and Connecticut investigated whether the strategies used in their school districts worked. Summer school and tutoring are among the more popular approaches districts have used to get students on track. 

The rest of the report’s findings largely mirrored existing research on the academic effects of the pandemic.

While the researchers did not find a link between less in-person instruction and larger declines in student performance, they found Asian and Black students were less likely to be offered in-person instruction compared with other racial groups. Students who learned in person 100% of the time during the 2020-21 school year scored slightly higher — 3% — on math compared with those who didn’t.