On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that state school chiefs could officially apply for more than $13 billion in federal aid to assist K-12 schools as they deal with the fallout of the coronavirus. DeVos said this program under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act comes with “very few bureaucratic strings.”
But the application for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds makes it clear that states and districts should expect to provide some information about how they use the aid.
Where Coronavirus Money Goes
Within 60 days of getting this CARES Act aid, state education departments have to tell the U.S. Department of Education their budgets for their “reserve” of the money (up to 10 percent of the pot), including “the uses of funds for emergency needs to address issues related to COVID-19.” That should provide dollar-by-dollar details about how this reserve gets used.
In addition, the department is requesting that states report if, and how, they plan to use their maximum 10 percent reserve in two different categories: technology capacity and access, such as internet connectivity, and remote learning resources such as academic materials.
So aside from a detailed budget, states might also share with the feds broader descriptions of how they plan to use their reserve to improve resources and infrastructure for students whose in-person classes have been canceled. That obviously has special importance because most states have shut down their school buildings through at least the end of the 2019-20 academic year
Separately, states will have to provide quarterly reports to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about how the money’s being used. And DeVos might require additional reporting on a variety of issues; the application mentions that she might tell states to give her more information on various activities, such as whether money is being spent to provide students access to internet-connected devices.
For school districts: The application also says that when a district (or LEA for short in the application) seeks CARES Act funding, states can ask that district how it plans to use the money in the context of its plans to address virus-related challenges. Here are a few items the application says states could request from districts:
- “How the LEA will determine its most important educational needs as a result of COVID19.”
- “The LEA’s proposed timeline for providing services and assistance to students and staff in both public and non-public schools.”
- “The extent to which the LEA intends to use ESSER [CARES Act’s aid to school districts] to promote remote learning.”
- “How the LEA intends to assess and address student learning gaps resulting from the disruption in educational services.”
Now, just because the federal and state governments might gather this information about plans for using coronavirus aid, that doesn’t mean they’ll simply share it with the general public—or at least, maybe not without some prodding.
But if they do release the data, we might get some pretty good granular information about how CARES money gets used.
And remember that this information is about plans for spending the money. Districts still have a lot of leeway to use the money, and some of what they do might not be included in plans they submit to the state, even if the states ask them for some details.
The emphasis on remote learning in the application also serves as a reminder that while a fair amount of CARES money may ultimately help boost remote learning, the law does not included dedicated money to expand things like internet access and connectivity for K-12 students. (Remember that schools are about to get hit very hard by the economic slump, and there will be competing pressures on their budgets.) There’s no guarantee that the next round of federal coronavirus aid, assuming there is one, will include such funding, despite continuous pressure from the education lobbying world and others.
“Non-Public” Schools and Unions
You might have noticed that “non-public” schools are mentioned application, and you might be wondering why.
It’s because, just like the main federal K-12 law—the Every Student Succeeds Act—the CARES Act requires districts to offer low-income and vulnerable students in private schools the same services that their counterparts in public schools get. Public school districts work with private schools to figure out those students’ needs and how best to meet them, including through contractors in some cases.
This section of the law is known as its “equitable services” provision. Although private schools are involved, it is not a school choice program. More information, and a recent shift in policy for equitable services made by DeVos on the issue, can be found here.
It can be a complex and challenging part of the law in some instances. The application’s repeated emphasis on equitable services makes it clear that the department wants to ensure districts are adhering to the equitable services part of the CARES Act.
Separately, the department says it doesn’t consider “expenditures related to state or local teacher or faculty unions or associations” to be something states or districts can spend CARES money on. The department doesn’t specify examples of what it means here, however. And the application says CARES funding generally “will not” be used for things like bonuses and merit pay.
Photo: Terrell Bell, wearing a protective face mask, looks at a learning guide he picked up last month for his little sister at John H. Webster Elementary School in Philadelphia. --AP Photo/Matt Rourke