President Biden's coronavirus aid proposal would allocate nearly $130 billion toward reopening the nation's schools — even as piles of relief money given to state departments of education last year go unspent.
Under draft legislation introduced last week by the House Committee on Education and Labor, about $128.6 billion would go toward helping K-12 schools reopen from virus-induced shutdowns.
Just $6 billion of that is earmarked for spending before October, according to the Congressional Budget Office, while about $64 billion — roughly $32 billion per year — is appropriated for fiscal years 2022 and 2023. The remaining $60 billion would be spent through fiscal year 2028, the CBO analysis shows.
But state departments of education already have between $53 billion and $63 billion in unspent federal funds from the two respective relief packages passed by Congress in March and December, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data by the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank.
"With more than $53 billion in available federal emergency funds, state education agencies should have more than enough funds to implement the CDC’s recommended mitigation strategies to safely reopen," the report said.
A White House spokesperson told FOX Business that Biden is committed to "providing schools with the resources they need to safely reopen and fully serve their students," including providing enough funding to cover schools' increased costs due to the virus and to address budget shortfalls. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said that key policies for safe reopening include proper handwashing, cleaning and maintaining facilities and contact tracing.
"The president's proposal is based on a careful assessment of needs for this school year and into the next," the spokesperson said. "These needs are urgent, and we believe, based on this analysis, that the funds would be used much faster than CBO assumes. CBO itself expresses uncertainty about its assumption about how fast funds are used."
In December, the CDC estimated that implementing its recommended mitigation strategies in K-12 schools would cost somewhere between $55 to $442 per child. There are roughly 51 million K-12 public school students, meaning it could cost anywhere between $2.8 billion to $22.5 billion to reopen schools.
"With more than $53 billion in available federal emergency funds, state education agencies should have more than enough funds to implement the CDC’s recommended mitigation strategies to safely reopen," the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity said in its report.
Democrats' legislation, which the House is expected to vote on next week once the Budget Committee combines the different parts, would appropriate a little more than $170 billion for K-12 schools and colleges over the next decade. Congress previously provided about $31 billion for education in the March CARES Act and another $82 billion in the emergency aid bill passed in December.
"Because most of those funds remain to be spent, CBO anticipates that the bulk of spending of funds provided in the reconciliation recommendations would occur after 2021," CBO said in its report.
Senate Republicans, who have lambasted the size and scope of Biden's nearly $2 trillion relief proposal, have estimated that state departments of education have used just $4 billion of the $68 billion in relief funds authorized by Congress.
"It was just a month ago that Congress passed an additional $900 billion in COVID-19 relief. A lot of that money hasn’t even had a chance to be obligated yet," a recent report by the Senate GOP said. "And while some of the funding provided over the last year has been obligated, some of it hasn’t actually been spent yet. Before authorizing additional funding, we must ensure these existing resources are being used effectively to combat the COVID-19 pandemic."
Biden has made reopening most of the nation's public schools within his 100 first days in office one of his top goals. But one month into the new administration, the matter has become increasingly contentious, with teachers in some school districts refusing to support resuming in-person classes until their demands — like getting vaccinated — are met.
While the Biden administration was initially quiet on whether teacher vaccinations are necessary to reopen schools, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, poured cold water on the issue this week, saying Wednesday that vaccinating all teachers against COVID-19 before reopening schools is "nonworkable."
"If you are going to say that every single teacher needs to be vaccinated before you get back to school, I believe quite frankly that’s a nonworkable situation," Fauci told "CBS This Morning."
Democrats are poised to muscle through the emergency spending plan using a process known as budget reconciliation, which will allow them to approve the bill without any Republican buy-ins.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during her weekly press conference last Thursday that she wants the legislation passed by the end of the month and on Biden's desk before March 14, when more than 11 million Americans are poised to lose their supplemental unemployment benefits.