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Education Funding

The Incredible Shrinking COVID-19 Relief Package for Schools?

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 15, 2020 3 min read
The U.S. Capitol Dome

Schools have been waiting for more coronavirus relief from Washington ever since late March. Will it be significantly less than what they’ve heard about and hoped for?

On Monday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers released yet another relief proposal. The $748 billion legislation is intended to break the months-long log jam on COVID-19 relief in Washington. It includes $54 billion for K-12 schools, and also has $7.5 billion for governors to spend on K-12 and higher education (more on the governor’s fund below).

The bill doesn’t include state and local government aid, because that’s been a big snag in negotiations; Republicans don’t like the idea, but Democrats do. However, aid for state and local governments, which would also help schools survive a decline in tax revenues, is part of sidecar legislation that’s technically separate from the main $748 billion aid bill.

Just because the proposal is bipartisan and has been introduced with lots of fanfare doesn’t mean it will become the law; negotiations have failed to bear fruit for months. But it could be a strong signal that if lawmakers do reach a deal in the near future, schools might get significantly less aid than what both Democrats and Republicans proposed several months ago in different relief proposals.

The start of the school year in which many schools reopened for in-person learning, coupled with the development and distribution of vaccines for the coronavirus, might have taken some of the wind out of the sails of those who’ve pushed for much bigger coronavirus relief packages for K-12.

Of course, the development of a vaccine is great news for schools and society at large. There’s a steady drumbeat on Capitol Hill for more education funding at all times, but nobody wants to lobby for it under these circumstances.

Still, the vaccine won’t magically make lost state and local tax revenue that schools depend on reappear. And to the extent educators and others believe Congress has a role to play in helping students recover academically (and in other ways) from the pandemic, they’ll still want aid from Washington.

Using another comparison, however, the bipartisan bill represents progress for school funding advocates. It would provide nearly three times the $31 billion the CARES Act provided for both K-12 and higher education, said Sarah Abernathy, the deputy executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella lobbying group in Washington. (K-12 schools got $13.2 billion in dedicated aid in the CARES Act that was enacted in late March.)

If the companion bill with state and local funding were to pass, she said, K-12 aid would rise in turn. In addition, she noted, the legislation could function as a “down payment” with more money to come in another deal brokered by the Biden administration starting in January.

Still, Abernathy said, it’s hard not to notice that the $54 billion in dedicated aid for K-12 public schools is less than what was in the Democrats’ first HEROES bill from May, and the Republicans’ HEALS Act from July (although the GOP bill conditioned some aid on whether schools held some in-person classes).

If the bipartisan proposal becomes law, Abernathy said, “People will realize that $54 billion isn’t as much as people thought it was. She added that when it comes to pandemic-related expenses, “A lot of the costs aren’t going to go away.”

Here are a few more details of Monday’s bipartisan proposal that are worth keeping an eye on:

  • The bill provides $2.5 billion in relief for private schools, which comes out of the $7.5 billion in education aid earmarked for governors. The bill says this funding for private schools can support a variety of expenses related to the pandemic’s impact, but must be used for secular and “non-ideological” purposes. States are also supposed to prioritize private schools that serve students with disabilities and those from low-income backgrounds.
  • The legislation does not condition any of the K-12 aid on whether schools hold in-person instruction.
  • There’s no provision to expand private-school choice in the bill. In fact, the bill says the money reserved for private schools can’t be used for things like vouchers, or for organizations that support scholarships to private schools.
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