Analysis: Idaho grudgingly accepts a staggering windfall from the feds

With little glee — and some harrumphing — Gov. Brad Little said yes to close to $3 billion Thursday.

That’s how much the state and local governments will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act, the latest federal coronavirus stimulus law. Idaho K-12 and higher education will receive more than half a billion dollars, eclipsing the total from the two previous coronavirus stimulus laws.

The Biden administration worked this $1.9 trillion stimulus law through Congress without a single vote from a Republican. And Little is certainly following the GOP party line on this one. He has said the stimulus bails out states that have been in lockdown at the expense of states, such as Idaho, that have maintained a strong economy. A year into the coronavirus pandemic, he said, this stimulus law is too big and too expensive, saddling too much debt onto future generations.

Gov. Brad Little discusses the latest round of federal coronavirus stimulus funding during a virtual news conference Thursday. (Photo courtesy Gov. Brad Little’s office.)

Grudgingly saying yes to the money Thursday, Little worked in some red state vs. blue state rhetoric. “Rejecting the funds would mean California, New York, Illinois, and other big states get to spend Idahoans’ tax dollars. Rejecting the funds would mean Idaho gives up our say in how our allocated share gets spent. That is unacceptable.”

The politics-of-the-moment grumbling aside, here’s the big picture — this is a huge influx of money for Idaho education. Schools will have several years to spend it. How it’s spent will go a long way toward determining student success on the other side of the pandemic.

The K-12 windfall

On Wednesday, the Biden administration said Idaho’s K-12 school districts would receive an additional $439.9 million in direct aid. If that number sounds staggering, consider this: The March 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provided K-12 districts $43 million in direct aid, and December’s stimulus law provided districts $176.3 million.

To put this $439.9 million of one-time money in perspective, the state puts about $2 billion of taxpayer money into K-12 annually.

This $439.9 million will go out to schools based on poverty. Districts that already receive a higher share of federal Title I dollars will again get a bigger share of coronavirus dollars.

Districts and charters will get the money soon; the state needs to allocate the money to schools within 60 days, said Alex Adams, the head of Little’s Division of Financial Management. Districts won’t have to spend the money until 2023, Adams said. Which is just as well, since most schools are still sitting on money from the CARES Act, not to mention the second stimulus law.

When the feds talk about this new money for K-12 — $122 billion nationally — they talk to a large extent about school reopening. That’s a big issue for Biden, who has made school reopening a hallmark goal for his first 100 days in office. But it’s largely a done deal in Idaho, where every district now offers classroom learning, at least part-time.

So as long as Idaho schools can stay open — without any new or costly pandemic mitigation — districts and charters can concentrate their $439.9 million on learning loss. Little says the feds’ K-12 money comes with relatively few strings attached, and he hopes education leaders “can really kind of turn up the volume” on helping students who lost ground during the pandemic.

“A year from today, I’d like to be able to say that all our kids are caught up,” he said Thursday. “But it’s going to take resources.”

The higher ed windfall

Again, some staggering numbers. The state’s public colleges and universities will receive a total of $128.1 million, with half of the money going to direct student aid. The colleges and universities received $36.1 million under the CARES Act, and $72.7 million in December.

So, where will it go?

State Board of Education Executive Director Matt Freeman declined an interview request this week — partly because the board is focused on the endgame at the 2021 legislative session, but partly because the board hasn’t had a chance to dig into the higher ed money.

Boise State University said it is trying to get a handle on how it would parcel out its money: $18.2 million for the university itself, and $18.2 million in student aid. Idaho State University and the University of Idaho discussed their plans only in general terms. (Idaho State and the U of I will receive $23 million and $20.7 million, respectively, with half of the money going to students.)

Lewis-Clark State College officials have some specific ideas for their $6.8 million.

They want to hang onto some of the $3.4 million in student aid to help students that hit an unexpected financial crisis — a job loss, for example, or a spike in day-care costs. “We have seen a great impact in using the dollars that way,” said Andrew Hanson, Lewis-Clark’s vice president for student affairs.

The other $3.4 million — the institutional aid, for lack of a less wonky term — could cover any form of COVID-related problems. It could replace lost revenues from anything from student room and board to canceled events, a gap of $1 million per semester.

It could cover small needs; for example, Lewis-Clark is moving spring graduation ceremonies to its baseball field, but that means buying chairs that won’t tear up the field.

It could also cover big needs — such as remediation for first-year students. This is the higher ed equivalent of dealing with learning loss. And it’s a need likely to increase, President Cynthia Pemberton said, “given the disruption in K-12 education.”

A long rollout

Of course, these plans hinge upon what the feds will actually pay for.

“It’s a little early to say we know all that, because we don’t,” Pemberton said Wednesday.

Which, actually, is probably fine with Little, who spent Thursday preaching patience.

He said the state isn’t in the same kind of coronavirus crisis mode faced in March, when $1.2 billion in CARES Act money came with a December spending deadline. He said the 2022 Legislature will have plenty of time to weigh in on how to spend the new federal money — a comment clearly directed at lawmakers who have suggested going on recess in the next couple weeks, and returning to Boise later to have a say on stimulus spending.

The state has time, and an opportunity, to make strategic decisions about how to spend this federal money, Little said Thursday. With, again, some grumbling.

“The situation allows us to spend more time deliberating on the best ways to use the funds to support the next generation of Idahoans who will have to deal with paying off the debt,” he said.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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