Updated Feb. 10
The latest COVID-19 relief proposal in Congress would require districts to use at least 20 percent of their aid on addressing “learning loss” through programs like summer school, while states would have to set aside 5 percent of the money for similar purposes.
Schools could also use the funding to improve HVAC systems, reduce class size, implement social distancing, hire support staff, and address a wide variety of other needs and expenses to help schools reopen safely.
The bill includes requirements intended to protect state and local spending on economically disadvantaged students.
The $129 billion aid package for K-12 was released Monday by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va. Democrats plan to include relief for schools as part of a larger coronavirus aid deal through a process known as budget reconciliation. In total dollar amount, it essentially matches the $130 billion in relief for schools proposed by President Joe Biden shortly before his inauguration.
However, the bill does leave out two proposals from Biden’s American Rescue Plan. Unlike Biden’s blueprint, the House bill doesn’t include a $5 billion fund for governors to help the schools “hardest hit” by the pandemic. Also absent are “equity challenge grants” that the Biden administration has pitched “to advance equity- and evidence-based policies to respond to COVID-related educational challenges.”
The proposal isn’t final, and could change as it advances through Congress.
The House education committee advanced the legislation early Wednesday by a 27-21 vote. Republicans proposed several amendments to the legislation, but none were adopted. The legislation now heads to the House budget committee, which is in charge of combining COVID-19 relief bills from different committees into a comprehensive aid package in the chamber.
Among the amendments voted down by the committee was a proposal from Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, that would have barred the aid funding from being used for standardized tests required by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the main federal K-12 law; an amendment from Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., that would have prohibited districts from getting the aid unless they opened for in-person instruction, and instead directed the aid to education savings accounts for students to access directly to cover various K-12 expenses; and an amendment from Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Calif., that would have prohibited districts from getting the aid unless their teachers had first had an opportunity to receive the coronavirus vaccine.
In several respects, the legislation resembles previous coronavirus relief funding; the reconciliation proposal from Scott states that, in general, the money can be used in the same way as previous coronavirus relief funding enacted by Congress last year. Schools have been able to use such relief on things ranging from cleaning schools to paying for education technology.
Congress has provided roughly $67 billion to K-12 public schools in two previous COVID-19 relief bills.
Separately, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will soon consider COVID-19 relief legislation that would provide $7.6 billion to help provide students internet access and internet-connected devices. Education groups called for such funding throughout the pandemic to help students learning remotely and close the “homework gap.”
Capitol Hill’s growing focus on academics
However, the bill’s requirement that a minimum amount (roughly 25 percent) go toward academic recovery efforts at the state and local level is significant, and a departure from past relief bills. The legislation states that at least that amount must pay for “implementation of evidence-based interventions, such as summer learning, extended day, or extended school year programs, and ensure such interventions respond to students’ academic, social, and emotional needs.”
In addition, students who’ve been disproportionately affected by the pandemic would get top priority for this funding, according to the legislation.
Scott has signaled for some time, such as in a December interview with Education Week, that his priority in future COVID-19 relief for schools would involve students’ academic needs. In that interview, he specifically highlighted his desire for children to receive beefed-up academic services over the summer. However, using summer school to overcome pandemic-driven academic needs isn’t a worry-free proposition; concerns about union buy-in and states’ ability to mandate summer learning are two potential issues.
The Biden administration listed $29 billion needed for for learning recovery in its justification for a new K-12 relief proposal. However, that blueprint did not call for Congress to earmark any minimum amount for academic services like the House Democrats’ bill does. A bill from Scott and other Democrats released last month would set aside $75 billion over two years for pandemic-related academic services like extended learning time.
States receiving aid through the bill released Monday would have to agree not to cut their per-pupil spending for high-poverty districts more than any per-pupil reduction they make for districts overall, during fiscal 2022 and fiscal 2023. (In this case, “high-poverty” district means one that serves a larger share of economically disadvantaged students than the median district in the state.) In addition, states could not cut their own aid to the 20 percent of districts with the highest share of economically disadvantaged students from fiscal 2019 funding levels. That requirement would also cover fiscal 2022 and fiscal 2023.
There would be similar conditions for districts’ limits on how much they could cut aid to high-poverty schools.
States would also have to agree to maintain certain levels of spending on K-12 schools in general in proportion to recent years’ spending levels, although they could apply for a waiver from that requirement.
The share of district funding set aside for extended learning programs is subject to an equitable services requirement. This means that certain students who attend private schools and who have been deemed academically at risk are eligible for such services like tutoring paid for by relief funds set aside to address academic recovery.
Aside from K-12, the bill would provide additional money for child care, including $39 billion to the Child Care and Development Block Grant Program. It would also direct $1 billion to Head Start, the federal early-childhood education program.
Democrats who control both the House and Senate have indicated that they hope to approve a $1.9 trillion relief bill and send it to Biden by March 14, when a federal supplement to unemployment insurance expires. The reconciliation process allows lawmakers, among other things, to enact relief legislation by a simple majority in the Senate, rather than negotiating the filibuster through which 41 senators can block a bill.
Some Republican senators have expressed support for a much smaller COVID-19 relief deal to the tune of $600 billion, but the Biden administration and congressional Democrats have moved ahead without them.