CHN: Failure to Help States/Localities Cope with Lost Revenue, But Some Education Help

One of the biggest disappointments in the COVID relief package is the inability to include more help to states, localities, territories and tribes.  Governments across the country have experienced large revenue shortfalls and have laid off about 1.3 million workers since the pandemic began.  These workers include educators, public health and safety workers, unemployment insurance administrators, sanitation and transportation personnel, among others.  Laying off so many workers is a blow to the economy, and delays or reductions in public services depresses the economy as well.  The Congressional Budget Office found that direct aid to states and localities was one of the most cost-effective means of spurring economic recovery:  for every dollar spent on direct aid, 88 cents was added to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  In contrast, only 36 cents was added to GDP for every dollar spent on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) business loans. 

Despite the importance of funding state and local governments, strong opposition by Congressional Republicans resulted in rejecting most of the funding proposed by Democrats.  The bipartisan group of Senators who developed a compromise proposal initially included $160 billion in state and local aid in addition to more than $80 billion in education aid.  But to get to a package majorities in the House and Senate could agree on, the $160 billion was deleted (in tandem with removal of a provision to provide immunity to employers and other entities from lawsuits over inadequate COVID protections).   

The COVID relief bill does extend availability of previously approved funding for states and localities (through the CARE Act) until December 31, 2021, but this is of limited use, since much of the money has already been spent or promised. 

The COVID relief package enacted by Congress includes $82 billion for all levels of education.  K-12 education receives $54.3 billion; higher education receives $22.7 billion, including $1.7 billion for Historically Black Colleges, tribal colleges and other minority-serving institutions.  Outlying areas and Bureau of Indian Education receive $818.8 million.  Also helping students are the nutrition provisions described above, and child care and early childhood education programs described in the next section below. 

The COVID relief bill includes $7 billion in emergency funds to improve access to broadband, essential for education and much else during the pandemic.  Included here is $3.2 billion for low-income families’ access to broadband; there is also $1 billion to increase tribal access.   

COVID’s impact on education is of tremendous concern, with disproportionate hardships experienced by students at all ages with low incomes, if they have disabilities, and/or if they come from communities of color or are immigrants.  Fewer children are entering kindergarten; fewer students are entering community college.  Troubling numbers of children without adequate access to broadband are essentially dropping out of school.  The small increases in regular appropriations are certainly inadequate to assist school systems in managing remote learning, and the $82 billion does not provide as much help as is needed. 

In regular FY21 appropriations for the Department of Education, K-12 grants to local education authorities for Education for the Disadvantaged (also known as Title I) is funded at $17.2 billion, up $230 million over FY20.  This includes $46 million in funding for Migrant Students programs.  Special Education for students with disabilities rises from $13.6 billion to $13.8 billion.  There are modest increases in other education programs, including English Language Acquisition (up $10 million, to $797 million), the Nita Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers, afterschool programs deservedly named for retiring House Appropriations Chair Lowey (up $10 million, to $1.26 billion), and career, technical and adult education (up $70 million, to $2.03 billion).   

Pell grants rise to a maximum of $5,435 per student, up $150 from FY20.  Students are having a much harder time enrolling and staying in school during the pandemic, because they have lost income and/or cannot manage the virtual classes available now.  Students with low incomes are helped by the TRIO programs, which help high school students prepare for college and help students in college overcome barriers so they do not drop out.  TRIO gets a small increase, up $7 million to $1.097 million.