K-12 Schools Get $57 Billion in COVID-19 Deal; No Relief for State and Local Governments

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 21, 2020 4 min read
School bus picking up elementary student wearing surgical mask boarding at bus stop.

K-12 schools would receive about $57 billion in direct aid under a new $900 billion federal COVID-19 relief deal reached over the weekend by congressional negotiators.

The vast majority of that amount, $54.3 billion, would be for public schools in an education stabilization fund, and 90 percent of that must ultimately go to local school districts, including charter schools that function as districts. According to the legislation, schools could use the relief to address learning loss, to improve school facilities and infrastructure to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus, and to purchase education technology. This funding would be available through September 2022.

Education organizations that have long pushed for additional aid for schools grappling with the effects of the pandemic characterized the bill, which is much smaller than some previous proposals, as a down payment. President-elect Joe Biden has suggested he will pursue an additional relief deal after his inauguration.

The legislation does not include more funding for the E-Rate program that supports internet service for schools and libraries. The bill does provide $3.2 billion to an emergency broadband connectivity fund.

There is also $4.1 billion in a fund for governors to direct to both K-12 and higher education. Of that fund, $2.75 billion is reserved for private schools. This funding cannot be used to support tax-credit scholarships, vouchers, and other forms of school choice. Private schools seeking this aid must agree not to obtain additional funding from the Paycheck Protection Program. In addition, private schools that serve low-income students and have been “most impacted” by the virus are supposed to get priority for this funding.

The aid included in the bill “will help states deliver safe, high-quality education, expand access to technology, and recover academic learning loss,” Carissa Moffat Miller, chief executive officer of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said in a statement.

The deal does not include relief for state and local governments, a major source of contention during COVID-19 negotiations; a large portion of such aid would end up benefiting K-12 school budgets.

The bill says states must agree to maintain a certain level of education funding that’s proportional to prior funding levels, in order to receive the aid; however, the secretary of education may waive this requirement for states experiencing a “precipitous decline in financial resources.”

The $57 billion in direct K-12 relief is more than four times what school districts received under the CARES Act that the federal government enacted in March, which provided $13.2 billion to districts. Yet it is less than what was included in previous relief bills introduced by Democrats and Republicans over the last several months. However, the K-12 relief is close to what a COVID-19 relief bill that House Democrats introduced in May would have provided.

Ronn Nozoe, chief executive officer of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, called the agreement “woefully inadequate as the final word on COVID relief for schools.” The organization had pushed for $175 billion for K-12 relief and $12 billion for the E-rate program.

“Budgets are shrinking while needs are expanding from the pandemic,” Nozoe said in a statement. “Schools need funding not just to stabilize budgets shaken by local economies, but to accelerate learning after the pandemic. Unless Congress gets serious for the long term about supporting their own public schools, we’ll be cutting into bone—fewer teachers, larger classes, and less social support for kids at precisely their time of greatest need.”

While praising new funding for schools and vaccine distribution, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten faulted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for “obstructing the resources states and localities need to respond to the pandemic.”

“I worry that the package will be grossly insufficient to alleviate the hardships so many Americans are suffering,” she wrote in a column posted on the union’s website.

Congress was expected to approve the package Monday and send it to President Donald Trump for his signature. Unlike previous proposals by GOP lawmakers backed by Trump, the new deal does not require schools to hold in-person learning to receive aid.

Educators have been pressuring Washington for months, ever since the CARES Act became law, for more relief.

Although a large share of schools have reopened for in-person instruction, many in the education community say that schools need additional aid to address ailing HVAC systems, implement COVID-19 mitigation measures, and shore up shaky budgets amid fiscal uncertainty.

The deal is similar to a bipartisan relief plan unveiled last week with respect to its K-12 provisions. Earlier this month, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, told Education Week that the next stimulus deal would represent “bridge funding” before another relief deal eventually is reached under the incoming Biden administration.

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Evie Blad, Staff Writer contributed to this article.

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