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Education Funding

Reopening Plans, Private Schools, Special Education: Senate Puts Stamp on COVID-19 Bill

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 08, 2021 5 min read
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., praises his Democratic Caucus at a news conference just after the Senate narrowly approved a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, at the Capitol in Washington, Saturday, March 6, 2021.

The Senate’s COVID-19 relief package that includes more than $120 billion in direct aid for K-12 schools and students now heads back to the House. And the bill is now very close to getting President Joe Biden’s signature. But while the Senate’s version largely conforms to the legislation bill approved by the House late last month, special populations of students—including those in private schools and students with disabilities—would get more dedicated resources due to changes senators made to the legislation.

The Senate passed the bill on a party-line vote 50-49 on Saturday. The House is expected to pass the Senate version of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief deal on Tuesday, after which the American Rescue Plan would head to President Joe Biden for his signature.

The American Rescue Plan has represented Biden’s vehicle to secure more COVID-19 aid, although negotiations in Congress don’t necessarily match his original relief proposal.

Read about key aspects of the revised COVID-19 relief bill below.

Billions of dollars would be redirected to students with disabilities

The Senate version of the legislation provides roughly $3 billion in additional aid for special education grants, through an amendment adopted right before the final vote in the chamber.

As amended, the legislation provides $2.6 billion in additional funding for state special education grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. That’s on top of the roughly $12.9 billion in state grants for special education for this year in the regular federal budget. In addition, the legislation provides $200 million for special education preschool grants, and $250 million for infants and toddlers with disabilities, both under the IDEA.

Serving students with disabilities has been a particularly big challenge for schools during the pandemic. In January, the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights announced investigations into several school districts concerning their special education services over the past year.

Private schools would get a boost

The Senate COVID-19 bill provides approximately $123 billion in a general stabilization fund for public K-12 schools for states and school districts. The House provided roughly $129 billion in its version of the bill. What changed?

First, that $3 billion for special education we mentioned appears to have been taken out of that stabilization fund. In addition, the Senate took $2.75 billion out of the House bill’s K-12 relief fund and earmarked it for private schools. Governors would allocate this money; it would basically work the same way as a fund for private schools in the second COVID-19 relief bill signed by former President Donald Trump in December. (That legislation also provided $2.75 billion in direct aid for private schools.) Governors are supposed to prioritize that pot of funding for schools serving disadvantaged students and private schools “most impacted” by the virus.

Advocates for private schools hailed the new funding, and said they worked closely on it with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and other senators. The National Education Association, however, decried the $2.75 billion in funding as a “Betsy DeVos-era” policy.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill does not provide for equitable services. These services support certain at-risk students in private schools but don’t technically represent direct fiscal support for those schools.

There’s a mandate for transparent school reopening plans

Some schools getting a new round of COVID-19 relief money will have to be more transparent about what they’re doing during the pandemic.

That’s due to an amendment from Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H. The amendment says that within 30 days of getting this new relief funding, school districts will have to publish “a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services.”

If districts have already released such plans, they can use those to satisfy this requirement.

By contrast, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced an amendment to provide funding to parents if their schools did not resume in-person instruction. The Senate rejected that amendment. For weeks, Republicans have criticized the Biden administration, teachers’ unions, and others for not putting more pressure on schools to reopen. They’ve also questioned whether schools need another round of relief.

Homeless students and summer programs receive support

An amendment introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and agreed to by the Senate provides $800 million help identify students experiencing homelessness, and to provide those students with wraparound services.

The $800 million would also be earmarked to help those students “attend school and participate fully in school activities.” This funding would be set aside by states. By one estimate, schools have lost track of more than 1 in four homeless students during the pandemic. And the number of homeless students appeared to be rising before COVID-19, hitting an all-time high in the 2017-18 school year.

The House bill passed last month required states and districts to set aside roughly 25 percent of the money for summer school and extended-day programs to help students recover academically from the pandemic. Now, under the Senate bill, that set-aside can also support “summer enrichment” programs.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who announced the Senate tweak to the legislation last week, has publicly supported using recreation and similar programs beyond academic offerings this summer to help students. See our Q&A with Murphy about the topic here.

State and local aid, internet connectivity, and more

Other elements of the bill that are worth noting include:

  • States and schools must reserve roughly 25 percent of the stabilization fund for learning recovery (think summer school and extended-day programs).
  • $350 billion in relief for state and local governments.
  • $7 billion in emergency aid to help students and educators connect to the internet and provide them with connected devices, through the federal E-Rate program.
  • $39 billion for early-childhood programs, including Child Care and Development Block Grants and a stabilization fund for child-care providers.

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