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Education Funding

Concern About Unspent COVID-19 School Aid Continues as Congress Moves Toward More Relief

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 24, 2021 5 min read
Thermometers, gloves, and cleaning swabs sit on a table at the entrance to the Frederickson KinderCare daycare center, in Tacoma, Wash on May 27, 2020.
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A major coronavirus relief package with money for schools is working its way toward President Joe Biden’s desk—but it’s also reviving questions about how much money from previous aid bills still hasn’t been spent.

The U.S. House of Representatives is poised to pass $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 aid, which includes $129 billion for K-12 public schools. Roughly a quarter of that money would have to be earmarked for some type of learning recovery (think things like summer school), but for the most parts states and school districts would have a great deal of authority over what to spend it on.

Earlier this month, the Congressional Budget Office analyzed the bill. The CBO estimated that there would be just $6.4 billion in “outlays” (costs incurred) from the legislation’s $129 billion K-12 relief fund through fiscal 2021, which concludes Sept. 30 of this year. The analysis goes on to calculate that there would be $32.1 billion in outlays in each of the following two fiscal years, and that outlays would continue through fiscal 2028.

So why won’t the vast majority of that money be spent this spring or by the start of the next school year? The CBO points to what’s happened with the past two coronavirus relief packages, which combined have provided roughly $67 billion to state and local education agencies.

“Because most of those funds remain to be spent, CBO anticipates that the bulk of spending of funds provided in the reconciliation recommendations would occur after 2021,” the analysis states.

However, the CBO analysis includes a major caveat: The office says its estimates are “subject to considerable uncertainty” because they would fund existing as well as new programs.

Nevertheless, the CBO report is bolstering concerns or outright skepticism about why schools need more money so badly if it’s not being spent very quickly.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the chamber’s number two Republican, used the CBO’s estimate to cast doubt on how helpful the package will be to address immediate needs, saying that it “hardly seems like you can call that ‘emergency funding.’” The Wall Street Journal editorial board expressed similar sentiments.

And in early February, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the ranking member of the House education committee, asked the Office of Management and Budget for information about unallocated and unspent COVID-19 relief funds for education.

“It is essential that appropriated funds are going to assist those in need, including helping schools safely reopen and getting the economy back on track,” Foxx wrote in her letter.

A fight dating back to DeVos

This is not the first occasion people have scrutinized the speed at which schools have or haven’t spent COVID-19 relief.

Last November, the U.S. Department of Education published an interactive data presentation purporting to show how much of the CARES Act K-12 relief money enacted last March had been spent. Then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said the data showed that even as they pleaded with Washington for more COVID-19 relief, school officials had left a huge amount of CARES relief just “sitting in the bank.” From the end of March through the end of September, she said, just 12 percent of the $13.2 billion for state education departments and school districts had been spent, DeVos claimed.

Yet state and local officials quickly pushed back. They said DeVos’s argument was misleading because many schools had set aside or obligated various uses for that aid money, even if they hadn’t technically spent it. As Jonas Zuckerman of the Wisconsin department of education told us at the time, “Making a definitive statement about how much money is ‘sitting in the bank’ at this point is inaccurate.”

We covered similar questions about how fast schools were using CARES Act money last summer. It usually does take some time, longer than some might expect, for federal relief to make its way to schools so officials can spend it.

That data presentation DeVos unveiled last November, by the way, is still available from and advertised by Biden’s Education Department (unlike the report from President Donald Trump’s American history commission). However, the department says the information was last updated Jan. 5. And it doesn’t include information about the $54 billion for K-12 schools in the relief package Trump signed in December 2020.

K-12 officials have responded to concerns by saying that just focusing on money spent can be deceptive, because it ignores when money is “obligated” and committed to various needs throughout the school year, such as avoiding layoffs. Red tape, bureaucracy, and confusing guidance from states as well as Washington can also slow down the flow of money to districts.

“I think districts are frustrated that the money isn’t flowing to them [fast enough],” said Karen Smith, the vice chair of the Association of School Business Officials International’s legislative advisory committee. “It’s almost going through an audit process before we even get the money.”

But Smith defended schools from criticisms that relief money is gathering dust: “We are drawing it down and it’s committed, but it’s happening throughout the year. The expenses are there. They’re real.”

As for the political element to this situation? Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said she’s not worried about the new relief package for schools being derailed by criticism about the pace of spending. But she does think some officials are trying to have it both ways, regardless of whether they’ve asked local school leaders about the issue and their needs.

“There are offices on Capitol Hill that can publicly oppose additional funding for state and local governance, while being fairly confident at the end of the day that the money will go through to their states and to their constituents where it is in fact needed,” Ellerson Ng said. “They are able to accomplish a political priority while not actually denying critical funding to schools.”

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