Home School Reform News Pennsylvania Schools Have Received Most COVID-19 Aid, So Far

Pennsylvania Schools Have Received Most COVID-19 Aid, So Far

By Christen Smith

(The Center Square) – Public schools in Pennsylvania have received the most COVID-19 aid throughout the pandemic, according to an analysis of federal relief funding.

The Commonwealth Foundation, using state data, determined that 29% of the $34 billion awarded to Pennsylvania by the federal government across three main stimulus packages – the CARES Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan – funneled into school districts. About 24% of the funds supported health care priorities, including vaccine distribution, while an additional 21% has yet to be earmarked.

The free-market-focused foundation said school districts have already received $10 billion in relief, with more expected this month as legislators piece together a spending plan flush with sales tax revenues and unspent stimulus funding from ARP in excess of $7.3 billion.

“How this massive influx of new federal taxpayer dollars was distributed shows the clout of special interests in the halls of government, from Washington to Harrisburg,” said Nate Benefield, vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation. “Even during a global health crisis, more money was funneled into public schools – many of which remained closed – than to health care needs.”

In one example, the Pennsylvania Healthcare Association, which represents nursing homes and personal care facilities, said its members received about $295 million in grants to address the challenges of the pandemic.

The School District of Philadelphia, however, collected $1.8 billion.

The foundation clarified that the stimulus money came with directives on how to spend it and where, with $122 billion from the ARP dedicated to public education alone. States have some “leeway” in how to divvy up the funding “within federal guidelines.”

Wolf spent his discretionary funding on preschool programs, broadband expansion, colleges and universities and nonpublic schools, among other line items, state data shows.

“It’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been lucrative for both state bureaucracies and school districts, despite many school districts and Governor Wolf asking for tax increases from working families,” Benefield said.

Benefield’s comments refer to the governor’s February proposal to raise personal income taxes on the top third of earners in the state and expand forgiveness for an additional 2.2 million filers. Critics, including the foundation, said the plan disproportionately impacts small businesses and will increase payments for families of four making over $84,000 a year.

Wolf said the proposal would still keep the state’s personal income tax among the lowest in the country while helping to redistribute tax dollars to the neediest school districts. His administration said using the stimulus money to backfill a $2 billion structural deficit – instead of directing the money to front line workers, infrastructure upgrades and jobs creation efforts, as Democrats suggest – would do nothing to address the imbalance when the federal aid dries up.

Republican leaders agree – to a point. With a 2024 deadline to spend the ARP stimulus, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said last week the state needs to pay its bills before launching new programs and should stash a chunk away in its rainy day fund to prepare for the $8 billion to $10 billion fiscal cliff on the horizon.

“To be clear, we should never play with taxpayers’ money,” he said. “We need to be good stewards of it and we need to save it.”

Republicans also abhor raising taxes just as the pandemic winds down over concerns that it will stall economic recovery. The Department of Labor said the state lost 500,000 jobs last year, many of which may never return.

“It’s not a surprise that the Democrats want to spend more money,” Cutler said. “That’s pretty expected, unfortunately.”

Benefield said lawmakers should focus on permanently repealing onerous health care regulations and expanding school choice options.

“And the remaining federal funds be used to help local small businesses and workers recover to the maximum extent possible,” he said.

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