For decades, many school districts with the largest share of students living in poverty have endured crumbling buildings, outdated textbooks, and little support for students and teachers. Now, the infusion of billions in federal COVID relief aid for schools over the next few years could change that reality.

A new FutureEd analysis of plans released by more than 2,600 school districts serving 53 percent of the nation’s public school students suggests that the higher the poverty rate in a district’s student population, the more likely its administrators are to devote the federal aid toward renovating aging ventilation systems and other repairs to schools. Likewise, the higher the poverty rate, the more likely a district is to use relief aid for new instructional materials, ranging from writing supplies to culturally relevant curricula.

The analysis is based on a compilation of the plans of school districts spending about half of the $122 billion allotted for K-12 schools in the third round of the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund (ESSER III). We combined that information collected by the data services firm Burbio with U.S. Department of Education figures showing the proportion of children in each district, ages 5 to 17, eligible for Title I funding, which supports low-income and vulnerable students.* We excluded about 120 plans from charter school organizations, for which we had no information on poverty levels.

Congress did not set out to fix the problems of under-resourced school districts when it approved the American Rescue Plan last year. But because the money flows through the federal Title I formula, the districts with the greatest concentrations of poverty are receiving far more funding than their more affluent counterparts. The 10 percent of districts in our analysis with the most children living in poverty will spend on average $5,500 per student in ESSER III aid, nearly 10 times more than the most affluent districts.

While all districts have made hiring and paying academic staff a top spending priority — it’s the No. 1 choice in the more affluent districts and No. 2 among the highest-poverty quartile — other choices vary widely, depending on poverty levels.

Consider plans for improving heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, an allowable use for the federal aid since COVID-19 is an airborne disease. About a third of the most affluent districts — the top 10 percent in the sample — plan to spend ESSER III money on upgrades, making it the fifth-highest priority for that group. For the 10 percent of districts with the most children in poverty, HVAC is the No. 1 priority, with about two-thirds of the districts investing in improvements.

Read the full article about COVID relief funds by Phyllis W. Jordan and Bella Dimarco at The 74.