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Budget & Finance

What to Watch for in Any New Coronavirus Bailout for Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 06, 2020 8 min read
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Schools are now firmly at the epicenter of America’s anxiety.

Students missing classmates, teachers, and extracurricular activities. Parents frantic about a fresh round of mandatory remote learning in the fall. Educators worried about health and safety in schools. A crippled economy. And a presidential election on Nov. 3 featuring an incumbent who demanded on Monday that schools reopen in the fall. All those factors are increasing the likelihood that Congress will approve a new virus bailout with help for schools.

“Every single education system had to shut down their every day work and figure out how to reopen, possibly with a lot less funding,” said Sarah Abernathy, the deputy executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella group that lobbies for federal education spending. “I’m assuming that Congress is going to provide a lot more than the $30 billion in funding.” (That was the aid for K-12 and higher education in the most recent federal virus bailout, the CARES Act.)

To help you keep track of the competing priorities in Washington, we put together a list of 10 items to pay attention to in the next relief package if and when the lawmakers finally pass one. Here’s some context for that list:

  • The Senate is not scheduled to be back in session until July 20. So even if a bailout bill moves quickly, remember that schools are due to reopen in mid-August.
  • A federal watchdog report found that by the end of May, less than 1 percent of CARES Act aid available to K-12 had actually been spent. That tells you how long it can take for federal money to have an impact in schools.

Now, here’s the list:

1. How much relief money will schools get?

There’s no shortage of wish lists from interested parties:

You get the idea. Remember: The phrase “reopen safely” can mean very different things to different people. (More on that in a moment.)

2. How will aid money get distributed to schools?

Congress allocated money to districts in the CARES Act using the Title I formula, which is how traditional aid for disadvantaged students is distributed. But legally, CARES Act money is not Title I money. The formula is also complex and doesn’t always serve disadvantaged students particularly well. So is there a better way to allocate that money to districts? Here’s one idea for a better K-12 coronavirus aid formula we profiled recently.

3. What will Congress let schools spend relief money on?

The CARES Act—which stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security—gave schools a lot of flexibility in terms of how they spent the money. In the next relief bill, there could be a tug of war over that issue. On one side might be Republicans who could focus on the health and safety protocols and supplies needed to help schools resume in-person classes, but not a huge range of needs. On the other side might be Democrats who could try to expand the focus of a bailout to priorities like saving teacher jobs, infrastructure, and broadband internet access.

4. Could Title I and special education get special treatment?

Murray’s bill proposes a $12.9 billion infusion of cash specifically for Title I, and $12 billion for special education services. Those two items are separate from the $175 billion “stabilization” fund she wants for school districts to shore up their budgets and meet critical needs. They’re also perhaps the two highest-profile education programs the federal government runs.

5. Will the Trump administration chalk up a school choice win?

Schools feel they have political leverage right now, but so does the Trump administration’s education team. For more than two years, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has unsuccessfully pushed for Congress to authorize $5 billion in tax credits to back private school choice and other education services. Now the Trump team wants Congress to attach that plan to a bailout bill. Will Democrats make that or a similar concession in order to get President Donald Trump to sign a big aid package for traditional public schools?

Remember, congressional Democrats’ antipathy to DeVos might be at an all-time high because of her push to redirect a relatively big slice of CARES aid to private school students through equitable services. In fact, Democrats have tried to block that avenue for DeVos in the next relief bill by leaving out equitable services from the HEROES Act. That doesn’t signal their amenability to a federally backed school choice program.

6. How much will relief for states and local communities help K-12?

Emergency aid earmarked for education isn’t the only source of emergency aid that could help schools. For example, the HEROES Act—which stands for Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions—for example, would provide nearly $1 trillion in fiscal relief for state and local governments. State and local officials, in turn, could direct a lot of that money to schools. But there’s no guarantee how much of that money schools would get. Education officials won’t relish having to, essentially, lobby twice for federal money. And if states and local governments direct that money to schools, but cut their own K-12 budgets at the same time, schools might not be a lot better off, or better off at all. Speaking of which ...

7. Could states be prohibited from using a bailout to backfill education cuts?

The CARES Act essentially says states can’t use the aid money to make up for their own coronavirus-related cuts to school funding as their economies struggle. However, there’s a relatively straightforward waiver process states can use. This has alarmed some education officials, particularly at the local level, who aren’t getting similar flexibility under CARES.

John B. King Jr., the president of the Education Trust and DeVos’ predecessor as education secretary, has pushed for much firmer “maintenance of effort” requirements in a new relief bill. He’s not the only one to lobby for that. Could an aid package include some kind of compromise on this front?

8. Will school districts get a legal shield?

Several weeks ago, Alexander said that one of his top priorities for education in a new relief package was ensuring that schools could get liability protections from lawsuits related to how they handle reopening during the pandemic. That hasn’t gotten as much recent buzz as other items in a potential aid package, but given Alexander’s position, it’s worth keeping in mind.

9. Could controversy over special education return?

It may feel like a million years ago, but the CARES Act required DeVos to report Congress on whether lawmakers should waive parts of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal law for students in special education. Ultimately, DeVos recommended only very narrow and technical waivers from the law, to the relief of parents of students with special needs and their advocates, and to the disappointment of some district administrators. Congress could choose to ignore DeVos and give districts much broader flexibility in a federal K-12 bailout, although lawmakers might feel significant pressure at this point not to do so.

10. Will E-Rate get some love?

Before and after the CARES Act became law, lobbyists have been pushing Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to ratchet up resources for remote learning. (The FCC controls the E-Rate program, which helps students and teachers get access to the internet, and E-Rate isn’t a part of the standard congressional appropriations process.) The CARES Act allowed districts and governors to spend money on internet-connected devices and other infrastructure to help with remote learning, but didn’t provide a distinct pot of money for those expenditures. As districts ponder hybrid learning models in the fall, remote learning resources will continue to be a big issue for many schools.

Bonus: Will schools get a break from testing and other accountability mandates?

It may feel like it took place back in the Cretaceous, but DeVos handed out waivers from federal testing mandates in the spring due to the pandemic. Could states try for those waivers again for the spring of 2021? Georgia has already declared its intention to do that, and that desire might only grow and spread in the coming months.

DeVos is under no obligation to grant such waivers for what’s scheduled to take place eight or nine months from now. And we might have a different administration next year that will take a different view of the issue. But there could be some pressure on Congress to give states and schools a break from portions of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Photos from left: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in March (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite); Senate Majority Leadder Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in March (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky); diptych by Andrew Ujifusa for Education Week

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