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Senate Coronavirus Bill Would Give DeVos Sweeping Power to Waive Education Law

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 19, 2020 2 min read
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See full coverage of the coronavirus and schools here

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would be given broad power to waive the main federal law for public schools, under emergency coronavirus legislation introduced Thursday by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act gives the education secretary the power to grant “national emergency educational waivers” from the Every Student Succeeds Act, as well as the Higher Education Act and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. Specifically, the legislation gives DeVos the power to “waive any statutory or regulatory requirement (such as those requirements related to assessments, accountability, allocation of funds, and reporting), for which a waiver request is submitted ... if the Secretary determines that such a waiver is necessary and appropriate.”

Separately, states, districts, Indian tribes, and colleges and universities could submit waiver requests in which they identify the programs that would be affected and why the spread of the coronavirus prevents or restricts them from complying with the relevant section of the law. DeVos would have 15 days to approve or reject the waiver requests, and the waivers would last for up to a year, although extensions would be allowed under certain circumstances.

However, DeVos would be barred from waiving “applicable civil rights laws under the legislation.” Within 30 days after the bill becoming law, DeVos would also have to tell Congress whether she believes waivers should also be made available from the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, the federal law governing special education, in order to provide “limited flexibility.”

The legislation could give the education secretary unprecedented powers over federal education law, since she could waive any section of the law if she sees fit as well as approve waivers for states and districts dealing with the fallout of the virus. The bill, must still pass the GOP-controlled Senate and the House, which is run by Democrats,

As schools have shut down across the nation in response to the spread of the coronavirus, states and school districts have put increasing pressure on the U.S. Department of Education to release them from requirements under ESSA. Specifically, states have asked her to allow them to cancel federally mandated state exams; many states have already announced that they have done so for this spring.

President Donald Trump signed a coronavirus aid package Wednesday night that deals with student nutrition and paid leave related to school closures. Trump signed an initial, $8.3 billion coronavirus bill focused on the health care response earlier this month.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies before Congress in February 2020. (Graeme Sloan/Education Week)