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Port: Why did North Dakota's universities get more than 5 times the COVID-19 funding K-12 schools did?

The pandemic is a challenge for everyone, and I don't begrudge the universities some additional funding to help meet it, but what the K-12 schools are facing is both larger in scope and of greater importance.

Third-grade students work on projects on their first day of class on Tuesday, Sept. 8, at S.G. Reinertsen Elementary School in Moorhead. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — Let's do some math.

The fall 2019 enrollment number for full-time equivalent students in North Dakota's public K-12 schools was 110,797.

All of those kids are North Dakota residents.

The fall 2019 enrollment for North Dakota's public institutions of higher education was 35,353 full-time equivalent students.

Nearly half of them, something like 45%, are from other states.


In the spring, Congress appropriated to North Dakota a sum of $1.25 billion as a part of the CARES Act funding to help with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state Emergency Commission (read: the executive branch) appropriated that money while state lawmakers refused to do their jobs and convene in a special session.

The result, as it pertains to the policy area of education, was North Dakota's universities taking home nearly $62 million while the K-12 schools got a relatively paltry $36 million.

If we break that down per student, the K-12 schools received less than $325 per student (based on the 2019 enrollment numbers).

The universities got nearly $1,750.

That's more than five times what the K-12 schools got, per-student.

That seems like an odd priority. The pandemic is a challenge for everyone, and I don't begrudge the universities some additional funding to help meet it, but what the K-12 schools are facing is both broader in scope and of greater importance.

They have more students, for one thing, and K-12 education is compulsory. It is the law.


Higher education, while important, is optional. A twenty-something missing a semester, or even a whole year, of education, can more easily adapt to that regrettable circumstance than a third-grader can.

Also, if the third-grader isn't in school, their parents must arrange for child care. If the K-12 schools can't stay open, that becomes the genesis of a social and economic chain reaction with exactly zero positives.

Which is another point worth noting. K-12 students are children. College students are adults. One of these groups can more easily adapt to disruptions than the other.

There are negative consequences for college students who can't attend class, too. They're just not nearly so dire.

To illustrate how absurd these funding decisions are, let's look at two anecdotes from the data.

The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks had a fall 2019 full-time equivalent enrollment number of 11,164. They received over $20.4 million in CARES Act funding.

The Bismarck Public School System, just one of North Dakota's 244 school districts, got only $2.33 million for 13,329 students.

Where is the sense in that?


This falls, the K-12 schools have become the front lines of the pandemic. Many of the state's districts have taken extraordinary steps to combat the spread of COVID-19 in and around their facilities (they could have also canceled sports this year, as a precaution to help keep classrooms open, but that's a different sort of column ).

Why didn't the appropriation of CARES Act dollars reflect that reality?

I suspect it's the same reason why, at the heights of the oil boom when the state was awash in tax revenues, the North Dakota University System saw a 53% spike in their funding despite flat enrollment, something I pointed out in my weekend column .

The universities have outsized political clout in our state. They have lobbyists and highly paid administrators, not to mention large networks of sports fans and alumni, who are effective when it comes to levering money out of the state treasury.

So effective, in fact, it often perverts our state's priorities even when it comes to something as fundamentally important as K-12 education.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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