The chorus of demands for Congress to provide a big new relief package for schools is growing louder. But such aid is only useful if it's actually spent. So why, as schools scramble to reopen more than three months after the first round of K-12 coronavirus relief money was signed into law, do reports indicate that a small share of it has been spent?
A Government Accountability Office report published last month found that by the end of May, states had expended less than 1 percent of the money available to them under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act. That figure covered the $13 billion district fund and $3 billion that governors can spend on K-12 and higher education. During a Sunday interview with CNN, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos alluded to the GAO report to suggest that schools don't aren't lacking federal support to reopen.
So just how long will it take for schools to take advantage of a future round of aid, given that some schools are due to start a new school year in early August?
The U.S. Department of Education was required to make the money available within 30 days of the CARES Act becoming law, and to approve or reject state applications for the money within 30 days. Federal K-12 aid isn't just sent out like a check to individuals or instantly deposited in local district bank accounts. And remember that the GAO's data is more than a month old.
Yet the pace of CARES aid spending still isn't what many might think it would be, according to folks we've talked to. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported last week that the state will provide $158 million in CARES aid earmarked for local school districts; however, a state education department spokesman, Chris Boucher, told us Monday that the relief "will be allocated later this month."
So why has the money moved through the system relatively slowly? Here are a few answers we heard from state and local leaders.
We asked the Council of Chief State School Officers about the GAO report and why so much CARES aid is unspent. After stressing the importance of the CARES money, the group said in a statement that, "All states and districts have put plans in place for how to spend these funds. The data in this [GAO] report is likely reflective of the technicalities and timing on how districts draw down funds."
It's important to note here that when the GAO refers to money being "spent," it's talking about states distributing the money to school districts. States can set aside up to 10 percent of CARES money for K-12 districts for their own, statewide purposes. But if states don't get the rest of the money to schools, they can't spend it.
The CARES Act gives schools until September 2021 to spend money from both the district-level and governor's funds. There's nothing to prevent schools from taking that long to spend the money. But to many members of the public, relying on that timeline for spending the money might not exactly lend urgency to the situation.
Uncertainty over the next aid package is playing a role, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
Districts have priorities for how to spend the emergency aid money, she said, but don't want to rush to spend all their money if the federal government comes up short in a new relief package as state and local budgets falter during the virus' economic fallout.
"They don't want to go all their CARES funding on the assumption that there's going to be a $70 billion pot of funding ... and then not have that funding come through," Ellerson said of her groups' members. " They have to hedge the budget, and their budget outlook is very different if it's just the CARES Act."
Just because the CARES money isn't technically being spent down by districts doesn't mean it isn't useful.
Why? Ellerson pointed out that many districts might be spending down their state and local funding they have in hand during this period, and will turn to CARES Act money in the future to provide a reimbursement.
Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent of Dallas schools, said his district has been coding expenses on everything from WiFi to meals, in order to make sure it's all properly documented and the district can receive its allocation of $31 million in CARES aid.
"They're saying it's coming and they told us how much. So it's not in the bank yet. But they're usually very good about that," Hinojosa said, referring to the state eduation agency.
For months, public school leaders have complained about guidance—and a subsequent requirement—from DeVos that will, ultimately, lead to many districts setting aside more CARES aid for private school students than they were originally anticipating when the law passed.
The uncertainty that guidance created, and hesitation about what the final rule from DeVos would require, made states and district hesitate about how exactly to handle the relief money, critics of DeVos' moves argued.
But how much money is at stake with respect to the rule? Estimates are that the rule from DeVos, released at the end of June, would affect up to 10 percent of CARES aid for schools.
The CARES money was designed to help schools pivot to emergency remote learning, clean schools, and a lot of other activities already covered by federal law.
But at the end of the day, school is not in session right now, and hasn't been for several weeks. "It's not like there are a lot of robust opportunities right now to spend money," Ellerson told us.
Back in March, when we first wrote about the prospect of federal stimulus for K-12 schools, one expert told us that schools should put the brakes on spending and figure out how to put their congressional aid to use when their state and local revenues plunge. Hinojosa of the Dallas school system said his state gave him similar advice.
Given that concern at the district level, it will be interesting to see what if any requirements Congress puts on a new round of aid when it comes to when they're spent.
Photo: Lenora Vallejos cleans chairs at Bruce Randolph School in Denver, Colo., in March. --Aron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Don't miss another Politics K-12 post. Sign up here to get news alerts in your email inbox.