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Biden Administration Proposes $130 Billion To Help Schools Reopen


President Biden has said he wants to make school reopening a priority. And he's proposing the federal government spend some money in order to do that, $130 billion, to be exact, through the American Rescue Plan. Anya Kamenetz from the NPR education team has been looking into the details. And she joins us now. And, Anya, 130 billion sounds like a lot of money. But relative to typical federal spending on education, how big is it?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: That's a great point, Sacha. So historically, the federal government lays out only about 10% or less of the total spending on K-12 education in the U.S. And this one package would more than triple that total outlay if you assume it's being spent in just one year. So it's a pretty serious chunk.

PFEIFFER: And what would that 130 billion be spent on?

KAMENETZ: Well, as the CDC has outlined, there are some short-term costs associated with reopening in those districts that haven't done it, masks, of course, hand sanitizer, a new program of rapid testing - for those districts that are remote, Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops to control - to close the digital divide. But the big-ticket items are a little bit trickier.

PFEIFFER: How trickier?

KAMENETZ: Well, so states and, therefore, school districts are facing a big revenue crunch due to the pandemic, the recession. And recovery could last years. And by far, the biggest outlay here is for districts to avoid layoffs and actually hire more people. Biden wants schools to reduce class sizes, for example - that means teachers - to stop cuts to pre-K programs. He wants to hire janitors to keep the schools cleaner, tutors for summer school, school counselors and social workers to deal with the mental health fallout of this pandemic, to expand community schools with social services. So these are all people. And people means long-term commitment.

PFEIFFER: Right. And with all that hiring, who pays the salaries once this one-time windfall is gone?

KAMENETZ: Exactly. That's the question. And even on top of that, Sacha, there can be a pernicious effect that comes from a one-time federal windfall. So there are several efforts in this package to target aid to those most affected, right? There is something called a COVID-19 Educational Equity Challenge Grant. And that's to redress the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic that we've seen on students of color. Separately, there's a $5 billion hardest-hit education fund. And that's for governors to use to support educational programs and the learning needs of students impacted by COVID-19.

PFEIFFER: It sounds, Anya, like that's part of the Biden campaign promise on - to focus on racial and economic equity?

KAMENETZ: Absolutely. However, what experts told me has happened in the past is that money comes in. It is earmarked for the neediest districts. What do states do? Well, they are strapped for cash. So they use those targeted federal funds for the neediest districts. And then they take away funds from those very districts, state money, to kind of level it out elsewhere. And so come a couple of years from now, it might be the neediest districts that fall off a funding cliff. So it's tricky to get this right.

PFEIFFER: And, Anya, what's Republican response to this plan so far?

KAMENETZ: So we've heard Senators Josh Hawley, Roy Blunt and Tim Scott, they've all said that they're introducing amendments that would tie this aid to trying to not just encourage but force schools to open up. And there's been comments in a similar spirit from Senators Marco Rubio and Mitch McConnell. It's unclear, of course, at this point what changes they'll be able to make in this bill if it's destined to pass through reconciliation along those party lines.

PFEIFFER: And we'll keep talking with you as that happens. That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz with our education team. Anya, thank you.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.