Schools Are Turning Stimulus Funds Into Teacher Bonuses

Yorea Koh:

Dozens of school districts and states are spending big chunks of their historic federal stimulus cash on one-time bonuses to teachers and staff, over the objections of some parents and others who claim such payments violate the intent of the federal funding.

Districts in Tennessee, Texas, California and Colorado and states such as Georgia have approved four-figure “thank you” bonuses in what they say is an attempt to stave off teacher resignations and to boost staff morale after an unprecedented year that required adapting to virtual teaching, then swinging back to in-person instruction.

Georgia was the first state to act, signing off on $1,000 statewide bonuses to 230,000 school-level employees, covering nearly every teacher and staff member, including aides, custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers. The move cost $230.5 million, or about 35% of the state’s $660.6 million federal coronavirus stimulus money, and was one of the state’s biggest expenditures from its allotment of the stimulus funds.

Schools have until 2024 to spend stimulus dollars, which totaled about $190 billion, the largest-ever, one-year federal infusion of cash for public schools. While districts and states have started spending some of the $81 billion already dispersed to states from the most recent round of $122 billion in funding, many are deciding how to allocate the rest and under federal guidelines won’t receive those funds until their plans have been approved. Twelve state spending plans have been approved thus far.

Georgia’s state board of education approved the bonuses in March, around the time teachers typically sign contracts for the following year, to aid with recruitment and retention following a difficult time.

“We needed some sort of morale boost, and our answer was to provide that bonus,” said Matt Jones, chief of staff at Georgia’s state department of education. “I really think that triaged the situation and let us finish the school year on a strong note.”

Sharon Doe, a high-school physics teacher in the Richmond County School System in Augusta, Ga., said the money was a welcome token of appreciation.