Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Betsy DeVos on Coronavirus and Schools: An Update on the Federal Response

By Rick Hess — May 14, 2020 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we’ll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for America’s schools and colleges. Washington’s response has included the $2 trillion CARES Act. The Department of Education has been charged with dispersing $13.5 billion in CARES Act aid, providing guidance on the use of funds, and deciding which federal requirements to waive. I talked with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last month about the initial federal response, but thought it worth circling back in light of ongoing developments. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick: You recently launched a new $300 million grant competition where states compete for additional emergency education funds from the CARES Act. Some have described it as the Trump administration’s Race to the Top. Is that how you see it? If not, what do you think people are getting wrong or not understanding?

DeVos: Not even a little bit. I don’t see any parallels, to be honest. Race to the Top was wholly designed by the Obama administration to advance their policy priorities. It was a significantly larger pot of money—billions versus millions—and it gave states no choice but to adopt their top-down directives, like adopting common curriculum standards, in order to receive funds.

Our discretionary grant competition is completely the opposite. It’s a small pot of money—1 percent of the CARES Act funding—and it has no link to any of the other funding streams. It also gives great latitude to the states to come up with innovative ways to address helping students most impacted by coronavirus-related education disruptions. Yes, it is focused on reforms, but they are reforms that any intellectually honest person would have a hard time arguing aren’t needed.

On the K-12 side, the pandemic showed how ill-prepared much of the system was to keep students learning and provide quality distance instruction. The competition will encourage states to innovate to figure out how to keep all students connected and moving forward during challenging circumstances. As you know, Rick, I’ve been encouraging our traditional school districts to rethink their 19th -and 20th-century approaches for quite a while now, so that we can make sure every child is educated to his or her fullest potential. If we should learn anything from the present challenge, it’s that the seat time, industrial-age model has outlived its usefulness. We need to be much more personalized and nimble in how we approach meeting each student’s unique needs.

The other half of the competition addresses another deep concern of mine that has come out of this crisis, which is helping displaced workers. Our system isn’t doing a great job of preparing workers for the future. As we come out of the pandemic, it’s critical that we address the skills gap with high-quality, short-term programs that lead to real jobs and support families and economic growth. We also want to put a renewed focus on supporting entrepreneurship. So many small businesses have been negatively, if not catastrophically, impacted by coronavirus, and we’ll need a new batch of creators and doers to get the true engines of our economy back up and running.

Rick: How exactly will this competition work? What kinds of rules and criteria are there? What will the selection process look like? And what is the timeline?

DeVos: The first half, called the Rethink K-12 Education Models competition, asks states to look at the best ways to keep all students connected. We’ve suggested that might be direct aid to families or statewide virtual options, like what has been so successful in Florida, but we’ve also given states equal opportunity to identify and bring forward their own creative solutions.

The second competition, called Reimagining Workforce Preparation, is meant to drive collaboration between educators and employers in the states to address local economic challenges and support students of all ages gaining valuable skills.

In both, we’re looking for creativity, not a predetermined outcome. I’ve long said the best ideas don’t come from Washington and I’m confident that the states will have many interesting solutions.

The grantees will be the states—governors, state educational agencies, state higher education offices, and the like. State leaders will be responsible for pulling together the local partners they need to implement their programs.

The Rethink K-12 Education Models application was released in early May and is due 60 days later. Then, Congress has given us another 30 days to have external experts review the applications and make awards. The Reimagining Workforce Preparation competition is on roughly the same timeline, but the application will be out in mid-May. All of the details can be found here.

Rick: The CARES Act gave you the authority to request a variety of waivers. Can you talk a bit about a few of the key waivers that you have requested, and why you did?

DeVos: We rooted our work in answering two core questions: “What flexibilities do state and local education leaders need right now to keep education going?” and, “How can we make sure students have the support they need to get through this?”

The answer to these questions helped us decide what flexibilities to request. For example, we requested a waiver to Perkins V that would allow local education agencies (LEAs) to carry over any funds allotted to them for the 2019-20 academic year that they weren’t able to spend during the COVID-19 national emergency. We also asked Congress to defer the work or repayment requirements that typically apply to IDEA personnel-preparation grants, which help future teachers of special-needs students get the education and training they need to be successful in the classroom.

Rick: One big decision you made was not to request waiving any central components of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Can you talk a bit about that decision?

DeVos: As I’ve said from the beginning of the outbreak, learning can and should continue for all students, and that most certainly includes students with disabilities. Throughout this pandemic, the rights of students with disabilities have never been up for debate. There is absolutely no excuse for districts to abandon IDEA’s requirement that students receive a free appropriate public education.

The department moved quickly to help ensure schools had needed flexibility when deciding how to best approach educating students with disabilities during the national emergency. It has been great to hear how so many states have found meaningful, innovative approaches to meeting that challenge for all students. You’ve probably heard me reference New Hampshire’s approach, for example. Sadly, others are falling short. But, it’s clear to me that when there’s a will, there’s a way. We hope that districts that are struggling with this can learn from others who are demonstrating success.

As for the response, it’s sad, though I guess not surprising, that so many chose to assume I would take a different approach, given that doing so would only help schools, at the expense of students—which is the opposite of the way I approach every issue.

Rick: Can you update us on the status of the CARES Act funds for K-12 and higher education? How much money is out the door? What has struck you about how the K-12 and higher education communities have responded when it comes to collecting and distributing the aid?

DeVos: As of Monday, May 11, we have awarded $8.8 billion in Elementary and Secondary Education Relief Funds to 35 states. This money will be used to minimize disruptions in K-12 education caused by the coronavirus. For higher education, we have awarded $5.7 billion to institutions for the purpose of making emergency relief grants to their students. That means about 90 percent of the funding is required to go directly to students. There’s an additional funding allocation to help higher ed. institutions cope with the impact of coronavirus, particularly the costs of transitioning to distance learning, and we have distributed $3.8 billion for that purpose. Alongside this funding, 11 states have requested Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Funds, and we have made 11 awards totaling $378.1 million. Governors can send this funding to areas that need it most, to meet students’ needs so that learning can continue at all levels.

In general, I think schools have responded well. I think the most noteworthy observation is that so many have been trained to ask the department “mother, may I?” instead of embracing flexibility and taking initiative. We’re trying to turn the tide on that and encourage local leaders to lead, within the four corners of the law.

Rick: There’s obviously an expectation that Congress will be providing additional aid for education soon. Can you give us a sense of what that relief package might look like? How much money are we talking? What kinds of schools or higher education institutions will or won’t be included?

DeVos: I think it’s too early to tell. There’s been a lot of chatter and posturing, but the real negotiations haven’t even begun. I think there’s a lot more data needed to be able to make meaningful projections on what might be required.

But I do think there are a couple of known issues. First, local school districts rely on state and local tax revenue for more than 90 percent of their funding, so the most important thing to do for them is to get the businesses back to full strength, so they can generate the jobs and tax revenues that fund our public schools. I think that’s where Congress will continue to focus its efforts.

Second, schools that don’t depend on state taxpayer funding, both in K-12 and in higher ed., are in difficult situations. Many of them, on top of being tuition-dependent, are also reliant on charitable giving, and obviously the current economic situation has put significant strain on that. Many Catholic schools, for example, are reporting significant financial challenges and many have already announced closures, including Speaker Pelosi’s high school. Any future appropriations need to provide support to all students attending any school. Everyone is hurting right now and everyone deserves help.

The other known issue is that more transformation is going to be required. I’ll be advocating that any future package focuses not just on meeting current fiscal needs but on ensuring schools can successfully educate in times of disruption, social distancing, or whatever else might come our way.

Rick: Looking ahead to next fall, what do you expect K-12 and higher education to look like?

DeVos: We all need to be prepared for the fact that school could look very different in the fall for both K-12 and higher ed. students. What’s clear at this point is that this pandemic has really highlighted the need to rethink school to be more nimble, agile, and relevant to 21st-century demands and technological advances. Thanks to creative educators and leaders in the states, American schools have a chance to come back from this crisis stronger than they were before. It’s my hope, that even if we’re “back to normal” in the fall, that the new normal is a fundamental change for good—that students have more personalized opportunities to access education, and that we begin to think about measuring success based on what students are actually learning, as opposed to time spent in a seat or the building in which they learn.

Rick: OK, last one. These are tough times, but as you look across American education, what have you seen that has left you most heartened?

DeVos: Great teachers across this country have really stepped up to the plate to make sure learning continues for students. They have done a tremendous job, even when leadership in their state or in the local district has fallen short. They’ve thought of creative ways to stay connected to their students, and many of them have learned quickly how to teach in a whole new way.

I’ve seen bright spots of innovation across the country as well—state and local leaders working together and even across state lines to make sure students can continue to learn. For example, the partnership between Florida and Alaska allows K-12 students in Alaska to take online classes powered by the Florida Virtual School through the end of the school year. Or I think of the buses being deployed across rural South Carolina as mobile hotspots so that student who don’t have internet access can continue to learn online. I’m also glad to see educators take advantage of distance learning that’s not conducted online but instead gets students to learn about the world around them through experiences.

I’m also excited about how much more engaged parents and families are in their children’s learning. I think that may be a catalyst for a lot of positive change in the future.

This post has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.