The massive economic aid package passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in response to the coronavirus pandemic directs billions in federal funding to shore up K-12 education budgets, and also gives states and schools new avenues to seek waivers from federal mandates from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Education groups were already anticipating and discussing the need for another round of coronavirus aid-the package falls far short of the (at minimum) $75 billion that some, including the two national teachers' unions, asked for in a March letter to Congress. What that might look like (or whether lawmakers will pass another such bill) won't be clear for weeks.
In the meantime, however, this package "provides historic levels of emergency funding" and the prospect of "much-needed resources," said Carissa Moffat Miller, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School officers, speaking as the package moved through Congress.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provides $13.5 billion for public school budgets, with at least 90 percent of that aid earmarked for school districts through the Title I aid formula. The money could be used to support a variety of learning needs and various activities under the Every Student Succeeds Act and other federal education laws, including helping students learn remotely if their schools are closed. Another $3 billion would be for governors to use at their discretion to assist K-12 and higher education as they deal with the fallout from the virus.
In addition, the CARES Act, which passed the Senate March 25 and the House on Friday before heading to Trump, gives DeVos the power to grant significant relief from key accountability statutes under ESSA. And it requires her to report to Congress 30 days after the bill becomes law about any recommendations she has to grant schools "limited flexibility" from several education laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The roughly $2 trillion package also includes additional aid for child care, child nutrition, and grants to provide mental health support to school communities. But its $31 billion in dedicated emergency funding for K-12 and higher education falls far short of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Great Recession-era stimulus, which provided $100 billion for education.
In a disappointment for remote learning advocates, the coronavirus package does not include dedicated funding under the Federal Communications Commission's E-Rate program to provide internet service and internet-connected devices to students in need whose schools have shut their doors due to the coronavirus, or additional E-Rate aid for existing programs. Several Democratic senators and many educators and education associations pushed for such provisions in the bill, but came up short.
However, the $13.5 billion in K-12 education aid could be spent on supporting remote learning. And schools could also seek waivers from a provision of Title IV that caps the share of money that can be spent on internet-connected devices.
The CARES Act, which was the subject of intense negotiations in the Senate, is the third phase of the congressional response to the coronavirus; a previous bill signed by Trump relaxed rules around meals served to students, and included new provisions for paid leave.
As of late last week, the virus had led to the closure of more than 120,000 public and private schools, affecting more than 55 million students.
Essentially, states and schools could get waivers from several accountability and testing requirements. (DeVos has allowed states to seek waivers from giving standardized tests, an option many states have seized.)
And they could also get waivers from several funding requirements about how much they spend year-over-year. Districts could also seek to use a higher share of Title IV grants to purchase devices.
Within 30 days of the bill becoming law, DeVos would also have to tell Congress if she thinks any additional waivers are necessary from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act-the federal law governing special education-as well as ESSA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, in order to provide schools with "limited flexibility."
Although school districts are seeking significant flexibility from federal education mandates, that provision requiring DeVos to share any recommendations for new waivers from IDEA has concerned special education advocates.
In a statement released after the Senate vote, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, said she "successfully blocked Republican efforts to give Secretary DeVos a blank check to waive students' civil rights." However, the period after the law is signed could become a tense one as the education world watches DeVos to see what, if any, recommendations the secretary makes on this front.
"I think it is important this time, more than ever, for schools and families to be doing what they can to deliver education under these circumstances," said Lindsay Jones, the executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. "And that's hard for everyone. It's not going to be perfect."
The initial proposal for this third phase of federal coronavirus aid, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., earlier in March, would have given DeVos much greater power to waive portions of ESSA and other federal education law (although not IDEA).
"There isn't a sort of straightforward, airtight answer on what is the best approach" with respect to special education mandates under the current circumstances, said Danny Carlson, the director of policy and advocacy for the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Schools must balance the demands for equity and students' access to education with the realities on the ground.
Earlier last week, House Democrats introduced their own coronavirus stimulus legislation that included $50 billion to an emergency state education fund, with at least $15 billion earmarked for K-12 schools.
The House proposal also included $2 billion to a new E-Rate program to provide internet and internet-connected devices to students without their services who are forced to learn remotely, as well as $1 billion for Head Start. The bill specified that DeVos would get no new waiver authority.
However, lawmakers ultimately set the House bill aside in favor of the Senate legislation.
The Senate is on a scheduled recess until April 20, so it will be several weeks before Congress could consider and pass another round of coronavirus aid to send to the president.
Education groups are already looking ahead to a next round of legislation in Washington. A March 25 letter to senators from AASA, the School Superintendents Association, called on lawmakers in a future coronavirus "to ensure states do not use federal dollars to backfill cuts in state funding; and to ensure any future education technology funds flow through the already existing federal technology program for schools."
There's also a sense that more funding could be needed for programs addressing students' welfare, such as child nutrition.
As for the overall amount of education money in the legislation Congress had sent to Trump, "I think this ... is OK, given the magnitude of the overall bill," Carlson said