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As Beltway Dawdles, Schools Nearly Out of Money to Spend From Last Relief Package

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 20, 2020 2 min read
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As negotiations in Congress over coronavirus relief remain adrift, federal statistics show that schools have just about run out of money to use from the last aid package, underscoring what looks like a very bleak future for school funding.

The CARES Act, enacted in March, provided roughly $30.6 billion to K-12 schools and colleges and universities, with about $13 billion set aside for school districts. But updated spending data from Washington show that just 5 percent of the $30.6 billion, or about $1.5 billion, remains unobligated. (It’s not immediately clear how much of the leftover 5 percent is made up of unobligated money for K-12 or higher education.)

The latest data from the federal government doesn’t mean that the remaining 95 percent of CARES money for education has actually been spent. But it does mean that state education departments and school districts have committed the vast majority of their CARES money to other expenses allowed under the law, like improving remote-learning infrastructure and cleaning schools. Given that the new school year is under way, of course, it’s not surprising that schools that didn’t use the money in the spring and summer break have now committed to spending it in various ways through contractual agreements.

Why does this matter? The obvious answer is that if or when schools go looking for spare CARES coins under couches, they’re not going to find much. And schools are reopening without new federal relief on top of CARES to help them address the virus. Despite tens of billions proposed by Democrats and Republicans to provide a fresh infusion of cash for K-12, none has been forthcoming to help offset major state and local budget cuts hitting schools now or looming in the future.

And schools around the country started laying off teachers and others over the summer, a trend that’s likely to continue if not accelerate.

Earlier in the summer, the Government Accountability Office released a report that by May 31, just over two months after the CARES Act became law, states had expended less than 1 percent of the CARES money allocated for K-12 and a separate, $3 billion governors’ fund that can be used for K-12 and higher education.

The administration has brought up this general issue more than once since that report came out. For example, at a White House event on reopening schools last week, Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to President Donald Trump, indicated that just 4 percent of CARES money for school districts had been “tapped into.” She said the administration “would really implore those states and those local school districts to take advantage of the money” for education in the CARES Act.

And it’s understandable why folks might have had questions about what CARES money was being spent relatively slowly, given the pandemic’s sweeping effects on education and especially because DeVos awarded the money to states relatively quickly. (States and school districts have until Sept. 30, 2021 to spend CARES money.)

Several weeks ago, we asked folks why CARES money wasn’t being spent at a faster clip. Some of their answers are here.

Click here to see how much state education departments, colleges, and other entities received from CARES. The single largest federal CARES award was approximately $1.6 billion provided to California’s education department.

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