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DeVos and States Clash on Whether COVID-19 Aid Is Just 'Sitting in the Bank'

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Just a small portion of federal coronavirus relief earmarked for schools had been spent by the end of September, the U.S. Department of Education announced Friday. And U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said this data reveals that some states have fallen down on the job during the pandemic.

But state education leaders say the department and DeVos aren't painting a complete picture of how the money is being used. They also stress that CARES relief is vital for efforts to support schools and students during the pandemic, and that states need additional relief from Washington.

The Education Department's new data tool provides information about how much different pots of the CARES Act, signed by President Donald Trump in March, has been spent. From the enactment of CARES to Sept. 30, the department said, $1.6 billion of the $13.2 billion provided for K-12 schools—or 12 percent—had been spent. And of the $3 billion in a governor's education fund that can be spent on K-12 and higher education, $535 million—or 18 percent—had been spent.

The data portal provides state-by-state information. For example, on May 1, California was awarded $1.65 billion for K-12 schools from CARES, and as of Sept. 30 had spent $368 million of it, or 22.3 percent of the total award. Limited data is also available on sub-grantees, such as school districts.

We've previously written about how quickly CARES money has been spent, and terminology matters here. By the end of May, for example, a federal watchdog found that just 1 percent of CARES money for education had been spent.

At the time, however, representatives for state and local education officials said that the report likely reflected technicalities, such as how quickly districts were drawing down funds they in fact had plans for. They also brought up strategic concerns about the likelihood of additional aid from the federal government and states that led them to take a conservative approach to the use of funds. And it's possible the rate that schools are spending CARES money might have ticked up dramatically since the start of October.

CARES says schools have until the end of September of next year to spend the money. In August, new federal data showed that the vast majority of CARES education aid had been legally obligated for different uses, if not actually spent (think of contractual agreements, for example). More early data on districts' plans for CARES aid is here.

'Neglected Their Obligations'

DeVos used the unveiling of the data portal to criticize those states she said had not fulfilled their duty to students despite having the means to do so.

"States that neglected their obligations to provide full-time education, while complaining about a lack of resources, have left significant sums of money sitting in the bank," DeVos said in a statement about the portal. "There may be valid reasons for states to be deliberate in how they spend CARES Act resources, but these data make clear there is little to support their claims of being cash-poor." (By contrast, DeVos said institutions of higher education did a "better job" of putting CARES relief to use.)

But the Council of Chief State School Officers quickly pushed back on that. On Friday, after the portal was made public, the group's CEO, Carissa Moffat Miller, said the department's data and how it was presented was misleading.

"The Education Department's figures do not tell the full story of how CARES Act funds are being used," Miller said in a statement. "Many states and school districts have obligated funds beyond the levels described in the Department's figures—that is, they have placed orders or entered into service contracts that must be paid in the future."

She noted that states and districts have until September 2022 to enter into obligations to spend CARES money, and added that CCSSO estimates schools will need between $158 billion and $245 billion in new federal aid to cover various costs related to the pandemic.

In her Friday statement, DeVos also expressed her hope that parents and others "will use this information to advocate for an immediate safe return to learning for all students," and criticized the recent shutdown of in-person learning in New York City and other places.

President Donald Trump as well as DeVos have pushed for schools to hold in-person classes during the pandemic, saying that remote learning is not as good as face-to-face instruction and threatens students' mental and emotional health. The role Trump as well as teachers' unions have played in reopening decisions has been a significant, and significantly disputed, topic.

A district that pays a teacher using CARES money over the course of the school year might not draw down and spend money for that purpose all at once. Yet in that situation, the district still has concrete plans for that money and isn't just leaving the cash idle in a bank account, said Jonas Zuckerman, who is the Title I Director at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, but spoke in his capacity as president of the National Association of ESEA State Program Administrators.

"Making a definitive statement about how much money is 'sitting in the bank' at this point is inaccurate," he said.

Separately, Zuckerman said that the months-long fight over CARES money and private school students didn't help provide clarity to states and schools when making decisions about using the aid money.

"The tool ... can be a valuable tool itself. But I think it also needs to be transparent in terms of what it's actually showing," Zuckerman said.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)


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