Congress Should Promote Transparency for COVID-19 Education Spending

Congress responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with an unprecedented level of spending in order to stabilize the economy via numerous relief packages. Some watchdogs estimate Congress has committed more than $5 trillion responding to the pandemic, including $1.38 trillion for loan and grant programs, $849 billion for income support, $745 billion in funding to state and local governments, and more. NTU has questioned whether this level of federal largesse is totally warranted as to avoid previous mistakes of wasting taxpayer dollars during emergencies. While it can be debated the extent to which this spending was necessary, at a bare minimum policymakers have a duty to taxpayers to ensure that federal emergency spending is transparent and used for purposes authorized for its intended purpose.

Unfortunately, the $1.9 trillion partisan “American Rescue Plan Act,” President Biden’s signature legislative achievement, is the perfect embodiment of shoveling heaps of taxpayer dollars out the door without much regard to how most of this money would be spent. One aspect of ARPA that was particularly questionable was the $165 billion in funding to elementary, secondary, and higher education institutions. Schools were already flush with cash even before ARPA was enacted, and the urgency of these additional funds is dubious because more than $107 billion (almost two-thirds) is not projected to be spent until 2023 or later. To put this education spending in perspective, the $123 allocated directly for K-12 purposes alone is nearly double the U.S. Department of Education’s discretionary budget in 2020. 

Since the vast majority of states did not need the windfall that ARPA provided, it would be wise for lawmakers to claw back as much of that spending as possible. Further, as the public health and economic emergency subside, the overall need for this level of spending is not justified. But, given Washington’s propensity for spending, a clawback of this size is unlikely. 

Nevertheless, policymakers should guarantee that taxpayer dollars are spent appropriately and not wasted. Under current law, school districts are required to publish their plans on how they intend to spend these federal sums, but there is no accountability to ensure these districts actually comply with their initial plans. In effect, a school district could report they will spend federal funds on something, but end up spending it on something else entirely. Taxpayers and parents deserve access to information on where their tax dollars are actually being spent, not just where a school district intends to allocate resources.

Thankfully, Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI) recently introduced legislation to rectify this problem. Rep. Gallagher’s common sense bill is H.R. 6806, the “Spending Every Nickel on Education (SENSE) Act” and would add additional reporting requirements on federal ARPA funds distributed to school districts. Specifically, the bill would have school districts to publish annually whether or not they spent the money according to their previously published plans, or whether they spent the money for different initiatives. The SENSE Act holds school districts accountable to ensure they follow through on their initial spending plan.

The vigilance by policymakers and other stakeholders to make sure taxpayers’ dollars are actually spent on their intended purposes is a key transparency measure. We should make more information available to better keep track of federal pandemic dollars. The SENSE Act is not only common sense, but will hopefully save some dollars as well. This transparency legislation is important and deserving of a vote in Congress.