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Federal Flash: Education Advocates’ Reactions, Concerns, and Questions about the CARES Act

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April 07, 2020 10:05 pm

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On this edition of the Federal Flash, we’re taking a deeper look at the funding and flexibility included in the stimulus bill passed by Congress and the steps the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is taking to implement it. But first, a quick reminder to check out all4ed.org/coronavirus, our online hub for resources related to the pandemic.

Additional Federal Coronavirus Aid

It’s been less than two weeks since President Trump signed a $2.2 trillion emergency funding bill. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) included nearly $31 billion for K–12 and higher education and an additional $4.25 billion for Head Start and childcare. But most educators and advocates feel that amount falls well short of what states, districts, colleges, and universities will need to respond to students’ short- and long-term needs.

Recent history shows these concerns are warranted. Education funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus bill enacted in 2009, provided roughly $100 billion for education. That’s more than three times the education funding in the CARES Act. While state and local budgets undoubtedly took a hit during the Great Recession, districts were not also faced with educating and caring for students during prolonged school closures or making up for lost instructional time that resulted.

However, it’s possible more emergency funding is on the way as Capitol Hill gears up for an anticipated fourth stimulus package later this month. In addition to more overall funding for education, especially for vulnerable students like those experiencing homelessness, one thing we’re hoping to see in a fourth stimulus is dedicated funding to expand home internet connectivity, which was excluded from the CARES Act.

That said, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can already unlock existing dollars to increase home internet access without Congressional action through the E-rate program. Please join us, more than 7,500 educators, and nearly 300 organizations in calling for expanded home internet access. More information on what you can do to help is available at futureready.org/homeinternet.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can already unlock existing dollars to increase home internet access without Congressional action through the E-rate program.

Accessing CARES Act Funds

Key questions education advocates need answered include when states will be able to access CARES Act funds and what requirements they will have to meet. ED has thirty days to create applications for governors and state education agencies to receive their portions of the $31 billion stabilization fund. There is only one application requirement in the law: States must pledge to maintain support for K–12 and higher education for the next two years at a level that is no less than the average of what they’ve provided across the past three years. But this requirement can be waived, so we’re not sure yet whether funding from the CARES Act will add resources to schools or just backfill losses in state funding.

We’re also concerned about transparency and accountability, especially to ensure funds are targeted to the most vulnerable students. There are zero reporting requirements for states or districts in the CARES Act. That’s why we joined a dozen civil rights, disability rights, and education advocates to urge ED to create a funding application that prioritizes equity and transparency. Specifically, we want the application to ask critical questions to ensure funds will be spent on students with the greatest needs during and after the COVID-19 crisis and to require public reporting of how funds are spent locally.

Federal Waivers and Accountability for States

Another concern we raised to Secretary DeVos was the CARES Act provision for her to report to Congress within thirty days whether states and districts need additional waivers of federal requirements, including the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), where the Secretary lacks the waiver authority provided under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Disability and civil rights advocates, including the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), are worried that expanding waiver authority would mean that children with disabilities will be left behind, unable to access online learning platforms, for example, or to receive the supports required in their Individualized Education Programs.

Disability and civil rights advocates, including the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), are worried that expanding waiver authority would mean that children with disabilities will be left behind, unable to access online learning platforms, for example, or to receive the supports required in their Individualized Education Programs. While schools may not be able to provide the same services, in the same manner, as they did before the crisis, we believe states, districts, and families can work collaboratively to find solutions within current law. All4Ed joined more than fifty organizations in sending this message to Secretary DeVos last week. We’ll keep you posted.

While IDEA flexibility is unresolved, states are taking advantage of the flexibility from ESSA requirements outlined in the CARES Act. It’s now official: All fifty states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico have received waivers to suspend statewide testing this spring. This means that school report cards in the fall will include only a limited set of data from the 2019–2020 school year, like high school graduation rates. Furthermore, no new schools will be identified for improvement under ESSA next year, and all schools currently in improvement will remain so.

Because of the lost instruction and achievement data as a result of COVID-19, once schools reopen, we hope states and districts will consider ways to use low-stakes assessments to collect formative and diagnostic information for educators and parents. Otherwise, we may have no idea how much ground students will need to make up to remain on track to meet their educational goals and graduate prepared for future education and work.

Our last story of the day: This week, ED released a streamlined process for states to apply for ESSA funding flexibility authorized by the CARES Act. ED’s three-page form allows states more time to spend federal funds within several programs. It also permits states to loosen district spending requirements within the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants program, also known as Title IV, Part A.

This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the April 7 episode of Federal Flash, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. The video version is embedded below. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email alliance@all4ed.org.

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coronavirus, Federal Flash

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