by Dr. Robert Luebke
Senior Fellow, Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Note: This column was originally published on March 31, 2021, by the North State Journal.
Most North Carolinians know a con game when they see one. The North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and its parent organization, the National Education Association (NEA), have been working to keep public schools closed and federal funds flowing to teachers and educators.
Frustrated parents are angry that the unwillingness of teachers to return to the classroom is causing their kids to fall further behind. Meanwhile, parents can’t help but notice many charter schools and nearly all private schools are open. The resulting frustration helped produce legislation that ultimately pressured Gov. Roy Cooper and legislative Republicans to develop a reopening plan. Now that North Carolina has a plan for reopening public schools, expect even more calls for additional funding and staffing.
Last summer, the New York Times chronicled these developments in an article aptly headlined, “Big mess looms if schools don’t get billions to reopen safely.” Earlier this year, NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly did her part when she 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.
Democratic lawmakers say the answer to this problem is more money, and lots of it. They got their wish. Congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden approved $1.9 trillion — yes, that’s trillion with a “t” — in additional spending for coronavirus relief, including $130 billion for K-12 education, $3.6 billion of which is targeted for North Carolina public schools.
We need more money? The bank accounts say otherwise.
North Carolina schools have already received close to $2 billion in federal stimulus money from two previous federal relief bills. Not to mention, North Carolina is already 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 sat at $5.4 billion in February.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has reported that our nation’s 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 piece of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) will actually 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% of the $130 billion in coronavirus aid to public schools will be spent this year.
Yes, you read that right. Just 5 percent.
If you wonder what’s going on, you have company. If we really are in a funding emergency, a lot of things don’t make sense. For example, why do leaders divide funding for ARPA over seven years and drag their feet on school reopening plans? Why are there provisions to allow states to pay for services and maintain staffing levels? That’s status-quo behavior, not nimble thinking to promptly address the coronavirus. It’s 2010 all over again, when then-President Barack Obama signed a stimulus bill providing similar handouts for teachers’ unions, government unions and nonprofit organizations.
This only makes sense when you realize this: ARPA is not about making our schools safe and jump-starting the economy. It’s about rewarding teachers’ unions and other constituencies that helped both Joe Biden and Roy Cooper get elected. Coronavirus legislation is merely the banner under which this massive bailout has been orchestrated. It’s a classic example of what it means when activists talk about having a seat at the table. And the NEA sits in the big-boy chair.
It’s wrong, and it’s time we realize teachers’ unions — not coronavirus — are the greater threat to public education.