Pennsylvania got $104M from the feds to expand internet access to students. Much of it is still unspent 

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

This spring, as Pennsylvania schools struggled to complete a historic school year entirely online, state officials secured $104 million in federal funding to improve internet connectivity for K-12 and college students statewide. 

Now, with less than a month until the school year traditionally starts, most of the money still hasn’t been spent – even though districts are increasingly accepting that remote instruction will be the reality for hundreds of thousands of school children this fall.

Gov. Tom Wolf has total authority to allocate the grant that Pennsylvania received from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, a pot of money created in the federal CARES Act, and controlled by the U.S. Department of Education.

So far, he’s distributed just one-third of Pennsylvania’s award, giving $3 million to preschool programs and $28 million to colleges and universities.

But his administration can’t say when they’ll release the remaining $73 million to K-12 schools or how they’ll decide to dole it out.

It’s very strange to me that they could not allocate it,” Donna Cooper, a longtime education advocate and former Rendell administration official, told the Capital-Star on Monday. “We’re getting close to school opening.”

The money from the GEER Fund represents a tiny fraction of the aid that Pennsylvania received from the federal government this spring and still has yet to spend.

In May, state lawmakers approved a $2.9 billion spending plan that appropriated two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s $3.9 billion CARES Act allocation. Leaders said they wanted to wait to see if Congress passed another stimulus package, or amended CARES Act regulations, before distributing the remaining funds. 

But unlike most of the federal aid Pennsylvania got this spring, Wolf does not need legislative approval to allocate the money from the GEER Fund, which was designed to give governors total discretion to address the most pressing educational needs in their states, according to the National Governors Association.

In their grant application, state officials said they intended to use the money “to increase connectivity for all learners, including English learners, students with disabilities, students in deep poverty, students experiencing homelessness, and students in foster care.”

Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger told the Capital-Star that GEER funding would be “announced by initiative,” and pointed out that public schools have already received $523 million in direct federal aid from the CARES Act.

School administrators, however, say that every penny counts as they prepare for local revenue losses that are estimated to top $1 billion statewide, and as federal lawmakers falter in negotiating another stimulus package.

Some have been calling on Wolf since the spring to quickly allocate his discretionary funds to school districts.

 “The CARES Act clearly intends that distribution of [GEER funding] emergency relief is intended to be rapid and direct,” Nathan Mains, CEO of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said in an April statement. “Districts have risen to the challenge of this crisis without regard to expenses. Equally swift action is required in getting the funds from this important grant to the districts.”

Across the country, Wolf’s counterparts have used their discretionary education funds to bolster historically Black colleges and universities, create private school scholarships, and expand wifi and purchase computer software.

Public school advocates say the Wolf administration should use the money to help K-12 public schools prepare the best online education possible for the fall. 

Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters PA, said the money could be funneled through state and federal funding formulas that are designed to distribute the most aid to needy school districts.

Alternatively, she said, state officials could prioritize districts that are encountering the highest costs for online learning and cyber charter school tuition payments, which could reach all-time this year as cyber charter administrators report maxed-out enrollments.

“Whatever the formula, this one-time emergency funding should be targeted to help increase resources available to students who have the greatest needs,” Spicka said.

Charter school families asked Wolf in May to split the money among traditional public schools and charter schools, while other advocates say a cut should go to non-public schools, which have argued that they deserve a bigger share of federal aid.

We would suggest [Wolf] allocate much of that money to help families who attend private schools,” said Michael Torres, a spokesman for the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, which is also backing a House proposal to convert up to $500 million of Pennsylvania’s remaining CARES Act money into cash grants to help parents of low-income children pay for tutoring and private school.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

The agency is poised to undergo a seismic leadership transition this fall, as Education Secretary Pedro Rivera announced Tuesday that he would resign his post on Oct. 1 to serve as president at Thaddeus Stevens College in Lancaster. 

This story was updated at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 5 to include a reference to a letter charter school families sent to Wolf.