Closing The Gap

Republicans earmark $70 billion for K-12 schools, but tie bulk of funding to in-person learning

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Senate Republicans unveiled the details of their latest $1 trillion coronavirus relief package Monday night, which includes $70 billion in funding for elementary, middle and high schools nationwide. 

Overall, Republicans earmarked $105 billion for education in the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act, which includes: 

  • $70 billion allocated directly to K-12 school districts and private schools
  • $29 billion for higher education, including colleges and universities
  • $1 billion for the Bureau of Indian Education and outlying areas
  • $5 billion for a flexible Governors Emergency Education Relief Fund, which could be used for early childhood education, K-12 education or higher education, based on the needs of the state

When it comes to distributing the $70 billion in K-12 funds, a majority of the money is earmarked for schools who elect to reopen with at least some in-person instruction this fall. Of the $70 billion allocated to the country's 135,000 public and private elementary, middle and high schools, only one-third, or about $23.3 billion, will be available immediately.

Two-thirds of the funding, about $46.6 billion, will be available to schools reopening for in-person instruction to help with the additional costs of accommodating social distancing and safety guidance advice from the Centers for Disease Control. This funding will be awarded based on certain minimum opening requirements and other criteria established by states.

To receive funding, schools will have to submit reopening plans for the 2020-2021 academic year to their state, according to the proposed legislation. Schools that provide in-person instruction for at least half of their students where children physically attend school no less than 50% of each school week will be automatically approved for funding.

Schools that are reopening fully remote will not be eligible for any additional funding outside the initial $23.3 billion. Schools that provide some in-person instruction, but less than the 50% mandate, will "have its allocation reduced on a pro rata basis as determined by the [state] governor," the bill text says. 

Roughly 50 school districts nationwide — including some of the nation's largest like New York City — that combined have over 2 million children enrolled, have announced they'll be using a blend of remote learning and part-time classroom instruction heading into the fall semester, according to Education Week, which has been tracking school reopening plans from districts as they are announced. As of July 28, Education Week sourced plans for roughly 330 school districts so far out of 13,000 nationwide. About 90 districts have opted to return full-time and nearly 140 say they'll be completely remote. Just over 50 districts remain undecided as of July 28. 

"Two-thirds of the money would go to schools that are opening with students physically present to help pay for the extra costs of providing that instruction in a safe environment," Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate committee on health, education, labor and pensions, said on the floor Monday. The $70 billion in total funding for K-12 schools breaks down to about $1,200 per student, Alexander said. 

The GOP's stipulations on school funding come after President Trump has repeatedly voiced support for schools to fully return to in-person schedules this fall. Earlier this month, the president stated he may withhold federal funding from schools that do not reopen with in-class learning and vowed to pressure state governors to support his stance.

Monday's proposed coronavirus relief package from Republicans allocates more to elementary and secondary education than the Democrats' HEROES Act. The $3 trillion legislative package earmarked $100 billion for education, with $58 billion designated for K-12 schools. The HEROES Act passed the House of Representatives in May, but remains stalled in the Senate. 

In addition to the HEROES Act, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act in June, which provides $175 billion in stabilization aid for K-12 schools, as well as an additional $12.9 billion for services to K-12 students in communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The bill has not yet been sent to committee.

Although the Republican HEALS Act currently calls for $70 billion in funding for K-12 schools, the legislation still needs to gain enough Democratic support to pass both the House and Senate, so there could be changes to the amount and the ways in which this funding is allocated. Last week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC he wants to finalize the next relief package by July 31. 

Tying funding to in-classroom learning 'punishes' schools prioritizing safety

Education advocates say the GOP proposal's bid to tie funding to in-person learning is unjust. Holding back two-thirds of the funding "punishes K-12 schools that determine it's unsafe to resume in-person instruction, putting the lives of teachers and children at risk," says Emily Martin, vice president of education and workplace justice at the National Women's Law Center.

Other experts agree. "It's deeply troubling that this bill would put students, families and educators at risk by conditioning relief funding on compliance with President Trump's absurd mandate that all schools fully reopen for in-person instruction, regardless of the local public health conditions," Scott Sargrad, vice president of K-12 education policy at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, tells CNBC Make It.

Many parents are also worried about sending kids back to school in person. Only about 39% of parents consider it safe for kids to go back to school, according to a new CNBC/Change Research poll that surveyed 4,332 likely voters in swing states across both political parties earlier this month. Among both parents and non-parents, 1 in 3 likely voters believe full-time in-person classes will be safe, while 13% reported feeling safe about part-time in-person classes.

"Having every school reopened with normal operations simultaneously would be an extreme risk," says Jeremy Konyndyk, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development.

While studies show children may not contract severe Covid-19 cases as easily as adults, schools are an ecosystem in which adult teachers, staff, bus drivers and administrators are needed. Even lower levels of coronavirus spread could mean that the U.S. has to deal with an overwhelming number of infected classrooms all at the same time, says Konyndyk, who is the former director for foreign disaster assistance under the Obama administration and who oversaw the U.S. government's Ebola operations in West Africa.

"Withholding funds from schools and districts that have made the difficult decision to not resume in-person classes due to current coronavirus-related risks in their community is flat-out wrong," L. Earl Franks, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals said in a statement Tuesday. The organization says Congress should instead focus on providing flexibility in allocating funds to support safe school reopenings.

$70 billion may not be enough

Between the additional costs associated with meeting CDC guidelines to reopen safely and massive budget cuts as a result of the current recession, K-12 schools need at least $200 billion from Congress — far more than the $70 billion that the current bill proposes, Sargrad says.

The average school district would need about $1.7 million to offset expenses such as extra sanitization supplies and additional custodial and health staff, according to a joint analysis from the Association of School Business Officials International and the School Superintendents Association. The analysis is based on an average-sized district that has roughly 3,660 students and 329 staff spread across eight buildings and 183 classrooms. The costs would be much higher for larger school districts such as New York City, which has 1.1 million students enrolled

"Public schools across the country are in desperate need of federal funding," Sargrad says.

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