by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Throughout the pandemic, the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and its parent organization, the National Education Association (NEA), has had a conflicted message. The organizations have been working to keep public schools closed and federal funds flowing to teachers and educators.
Last summer, the New York Times chronicled these developments in an article aptly titled “‘Big mess looms if schools don’t get billions to reopen safely.” Earlier this year, NCAE executive director Tamika Walker Kelly called on lawmakers to provide more resources to address the coronavirus pandemic and to grant more pay for teachers and additional support staff to meet the social and emotional needs of students of public school students. Now that North Carolina has a plan for reopening our public schools, expect even more calls for additional funding and staffing.
Does North Carolina need more funding to open the public schools?
To answer that question, let’s review how much federal coronavirus aid North Carolina has already received. The overwhelming majority of K-12 coronavirus relief funding is distributed by the federal government. So we can get a total by adding federal aid since the pandemic began in Spring 2020.
If we include the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law on March 11, there have been three federal bills that provide coronavirus relief to the public schools. The following table lists these programs.
Federal Coronavirus Relief Packages for Education
|Covid Relief Package
|American Rescue Plan
|Total Aid for Education||$30.7 billion||$82 billion||$170 billion|
|K-12 Aid||$13.2 billion||$54 billion||$130 billion|
|K-12 Aid to North Carolina||$396 million||$1.6 billion||$3.8 billion|
Some quick math reveals North Carolina had already received about $2 billion in K-12 coronavirus assistance. Aid from the recently approved American Rescue Plan ($3.8 billion) almost doubles previous aid levels.
So how much money does North Carolina need to open schools safely? First, some relevant facts: like many other states, North Carolina is sitting on a lot of cash. According to government documents, North Carolina still has not spent about $254 million of the $3.6 billion it received from Congress for coronavirus relief. On top of that, the Office of State Controller reported North Carolina’s unreserved fund balance at $5.4 billion in February.
Do schools need the additional money? The fact is, schools have been impacted differently by coronavirus, with differing impacts on their finances, as analysis by research professor Marguerite Roza and research fellow Katie Silberstein of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University showed. Roza and Silberstein estimated that Los Angeles Public Schools that opted to close their doors ran a surplus of $500 million (about $1,100 per student), in sharp contrast with districts with in-person instruction, most of which were overspending on such things as substitutes, nurses, and cleaning equipment. The bottom line is that some districts are carrying balances in future budgets, while others are draining reserves and counting on the federal government to fill gaps.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has reported that schools have spent only a fraction of the $67.5 billion that was allocated in the first two coronavirus relief bills. As a result, CBO is estimating that only $6.4 billion of the $130 billion new education aid package will be spent in 2021. Furthermore, CBO estimates that the remainder of the education spending will be divided out over the next seven years. That means only about 5 percent of the $130 billion in coronavirus aid to the public schools will be spent this year.
All this money clogs the funding pipeline and raises a lot of questions.
If we are in an emergency, why do leaders divide funding for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan over seven years and drag their feet on school reopening plans? Why is “not less than 20 percent of such funds” all that is specifically reserved for addressing learning loss via summer programs or extended-day programs? In addition, why is other funding made fungible and allowed to go to “other activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local educational agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local educational agency”?
A closer look reveals all this funding really isn’t about Covid relief or having kids return to schools. It’s about taking care of the teacher’s unions, major constituencies that helped both Pres. Joe Biden and Gov. Roy Cooper get elected. Coronavirus legislation is merely the vehicle by which teacher unions have been able to orchestrate this massive bailout for teachers. That’s what $33.6 million in NEA political contributions in 2020 — 95 percent to Democratic candidates — can buy.
Fighting for closed schools and teacher bailouts robs children of a quality education and fleeces taxpayers of hard-earned money. Teachers’ unions are using a crisis to benefit members. It’s time to realize that teachers’ unions – not the coronavirus — are the greater threat to public education.