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Congress Sends Coronavirus Aid Bill With $13.5 Billion for Schools to Trump

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 27, 2020 6 min read
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See full coverage of the coronavirus and schools here


Congress has sent a coronavirus aid package to President Donald Trump for his signature that includes $13.5 billion in dedicated aid for K-12 schools, as well as billions more for child care and nutrition services. It also gives U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos new waiver power to grant states and schools flexibility under the main federal K-12 law.

The House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act on Friday, following Senate passage late Wednesday. Trump has said he will sign the legislation.

The $13.5 billion earmarked for K-12 schools is included in the bill’s Education Stabilization Fund, which also contains $14.25 billion for higher education, and $3 billion for governors to use at their discretion to assist K-12 and higher education as they deal with the fallout from the virus. The legislation also states that any state or school district getting money from the stabilization fund “shall to the greatest extent practicable, continue to pay its employees and contractors during the period of any disruptions or closures related to coronavirus.”

In addition, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, passed by the Senate by a vote of 96-0, would provide the following funding:

  • $15.5 billion for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program;
  • $8.8 billion for Child Nutrition Programs to help ensure students receive meals when school is not in session;
  • $3.5 billion for Child Care and Development Block Grants, which provide child-care subsidies to low-income families and can be used to augment state and local systems;
  • $750 million for Head Start early-education programs;
  • $100 million in Project SERV grants to help clean and disinfect schools, and provide support for mental health services and distance learning;
  • $69 million for schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Education; and
  • $5 million for health departments to provide guidance on cleaning and disinfecting schools and day-care facilities.

The $13.5 billion in stabilization fund money, which would be distributed to districts based on their Title I aid, could be used to provide K-12 students internet connectivity and internet-connected devices, and a separate item in the bill for rural development provides $25 million to support “distance learning.”

However, the bill does not include dedicated funding through the federal E-Rate program to provide students with internet-connected devices and internet connectivity at home if their school buildings have closed. Dedicated aid for remote K-12 learning is something that several senators and educators have asked for in the last several days.

In order to access the state education stabilization fund, states would first have to agree to provide funding to education in fiscal years 2021 and 2022 that’s at least the same as the average of their education over the three prior fiscal years. However, DeVos could waive that requirement for states.

New Waiver Authority for DeVos

There are two processes for waivers identified in the bill:

1) Through a streamlined waiver process, states and Indian tribes could get significant waivers from accountability and testing requirements. These waivers would relieve states of mandates on publicly reporting various indicators under their accountability systems. States and tribes could also get waivers from reporting on progress toward their long-term achievement goals, and interim goals under ESSA. (DeVos has already allowed states to start applying for waivers from having to give ESSA-required standardized tests, which underpin ESSA’s accountability system.)

Essentially, states could get waivers to freeze in place their schools identified for improvement. No schools would be added to the list, and no schools would be removed from the list for the 2020-21 school year, under this expedited waiver process.

2) States and school districts could also apply for waivers from sections of ESSA dealing with several funding mandates. For example:

  • They could seek to get waivers from ESSA’s requirement for states to essentially maintain their education spending in order to tap federal funds.
  • They could seek a waiver to make it easier to run schoolwide Title I programs regardless of the share of low-income students in districts and schools.
  • They could seek flexibility from requirements governing Title IV Part A, which funds programs aimed at student well-being and well-rounded achievements. Caps on spending for different priority areas would be lifted, and schools would no longer be barred from spending more than 15 percent of their Title IV money on digital devices.
  • Districts could seek to carry over as much Title I money as they want from this academic year to the next one; normally there’s a 15 percent limit.
  • Finally, they could seek waivers from adhering to ESSA’s definition of professional development.

DeVos would have to approve or reject state and local waiver requests within 30 days of receiving them, and in general they would be good for the 2019-20 school year. All approved waivers would apply to traditional public schools and charter schools, in accordance with states’ charter school laws. And the secretary would be prohibited from waiving “any statutory or regulatory requirements under applicable civil rights laws.”

Within 30 days of the bill becoming law, DeVos also would 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.

Short of Education Groups’ Hopes

The $31 billion education stabilization fund, which includes $14.2 billion for higher education, falls far short of what major K-12 advocates asked for late last week—the two national teachers’ unions and other education organizations wrote to Congress last week asking for at least $75 billion in education stabilization money.

See: Education Week’s Map of Coronavirus and School Closures

Last week, an initial version of the “Phase III” Senate coronavirus stimulus bill would have given DeVos much broader power to waive the Every Student Succeeds Act, along with two other laws governing higher education and career-technical education, but no dedicated emergency funding for K-12.

A subsequent version of the bill, released before the Senate passed revised legislation, would have created a $20 billion program to shore up state education budgets, with at least 60 percent of that money earmarked for K-12 schools, a dollar figure that went up by more than 50 percent in the bill the Senate passed Wednesday

Earlier this week, House Democrats introduced their own coronavirus stimulus legislation that would provide $50 billion to an emergency state education fund, with at least $15 billion earmarked for K-12 schools.

The House bill would also provide $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.

Photo: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. speaks to reporters outside the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Washington. --Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

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