Feds Give $180 Million in E-Learning Grants While DeVos Pushes In-Person Instruction

By Mark Lieberman — July 29, 2020 2 min read
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President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have spent July urging schools to reopen buildings and asserting that virtual learning is inferior to in-person instruction.

But those messages haven’t translated to the department’s funding priorities. On Wednesday, the department announced 11 states will receive a total of $180 million in grants for virtual learning programs.

“If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that the antiquated one-size-fits-all approach to education is no longer tenable and education going forward must be more adaptable and student-centered,” DeVos wrote in a news release announcing the grant recipients.

The grants come from a pool of CARES Act education funds Congress set aside this spring for states with the most severe COVID-19 burdens. The recipients include Southern states such as Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas as well as several in the north: Iowa, Maine, New York, Rhode Island, and South Dakota. The grant amounts range from $6 million (South Dakota) to $20 million (Tennessee), with most recipients getting between $15 million and $19 million apiece.

The funds will support efforts to improve schools’ ability to offer instruction virtually, according to the news release. Texas will develop statewide online courses and focus on programs for English language learners. New York will spend the money on professional development opportunities for teachers to improve their online capabilities. More than 12,000 students in Louisiana will get access to digital devices or hotspots as a result of the grant funds.

The 11 states are divided into three priority groups. The highest-ranked (Louisiana and Tennessee) will get support for connecting students with technology they need at home. The middle tier gets help with statewide virtual learning programs. The lowest tier gets support for “new, field-initiated models for providing remote education."The grant announcement may seem jarring to observers of DeVos’ recent public pivot away from promoting the potential of online education to address learning gaps, particularly during the pandemic.

The Trump administration has threatened to withhold funds from school districts that keep buildings closed when the new school year begins, but there’s no apparent mechanism for that move without approval from Congress. A spokesperson for DeVos told Education Week that department officials are “currently exploring our options for directing federal education funding to those who are actually educating students” in person.

Education leaders have expressed frustration with the absence of clear and consistent leadership from federal and state governments as they grapple with tough decisions about how to keep schools operating without putting students and staff at risk of illness and death. Ten of the nation’s 15 largest districts, totaling more than two million students, have announced plans to start the year with full-time remote learning, according to Education Week’s district reopening tracker.

For more on the challenges of remote learning and the techniques and approaches that can make it work better, read Education Week’s remote learning guide, which includes ideas for closing the digital divide, techniques for enhancing professional development for online teaching, and priorities for in-person and remote learning environments.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies before a Senate spending committee. --Susan Walsh/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.