Federal Flash: Senate Republicans’ Plan to Coerce Schools to Physically Reopen This Fall
July 30, 2020 12:14 am
In today’s Federal Flash, we break down the education proposals in the Senate Republicans’ coronavirus relief package, known as the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act, and cover the reaction to it. We also provide an update on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) new guidelines for reopening schools.
Senate Republicans Introduce HEALS Act
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced the Senate GOP’s highly anticipated coronavirus aid package—the HEALS Act. As we discussed on last week’s Federal Flash, the $1 trillion bill includes $105 billion for education, including $70 billion for K–12 schools, $29 billion for colleges and universities, and $5 billion for governors. But unlike the earlier framework, which indicated that half of K–12 funding would be directed to schools with plans to physically reopen, the final bill reserves two-thirds of the relief fund for that purpose.
In addition, the HEALS Act includes no dedicated funding for home internet access, which could exacerbate the homework gap as many districts plan to rely on remote learning. Last week, the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) and several partners released a report that finds that 16.9 million children lack the internet access necessary to support online learning and that students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and those living in rural areas are much more likely to lack access to internet and devices. These students will continue to be caught in the homework gap without significant funding for connectivity.
Like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, states and districts would get HEALS Act relief based proportionally on how much they receive under Title I. However, only $23 billion would go directly to districts regardless of their fall reopening plans. For the remaining two-thirds of the $70 billion fund, governors would determine how much districts receive based on their plans to offer in-person instruction.
Districts planning a hybrid approach, where at least half of students are in school at least half of the time, qualify for full funding. For districts that have some in-person instruction, but do not meet the 50 percent requirement, a reduced allocation would be provided, determined by each governor. Districts planning to offer virtual learning only would not be eligible for any funding from that two-thirds portion of the relief fund.
The GOP bill also provides a carve out for private schools. Instead of an equitable services requirement, states must set aside money in proportion to the percentage of students enrolled in private schools. As a result, about 10 percent of the $70 billion would be reserved for private school students, but the exact percentage would differ from state to state. For example, if 12 percent of a state’s student population attend private schools, then 12 percent of that state’s grant must go to private schools.
From the set-aside, schools would receive funds based on the relative number of low-income private school students they serve. However, governors would reduce per-student aid for private schools that do not meet criteria for reopening for in-person learning.
Relatedly, the HEALS Act package authorizes—but does not provide funding for—emergency “education freedom” grants, an idea embraced by Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. This program, if funded, would boost state tax credit scholarship programs that help families pay for private school tuition and related costs, including homeschooling.
All signs point to the HEALS Act changing significantly in the coming weeks as the Senate and House head into negotiations, especially given the $2 trillion chasm between the HEALS Act and the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act passed by House Democrats in May.
Democrats have already drawn a line in the sand on key elements of the Republican plan. The top Democrats on both congressional education committees, Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), have said tying the emergency funds to schools reopening their classrooms for in-person instruction is a nonstarter, calling the HEALS Act “a recipe for more chaos and illness.”
Education Advocates and Teachers Criticize HEALS Act
Education advocates also criticized the HEALS Act for tying most of the K–12 aid to schools physically reopening. In a joint statement, nine education and civil rights organizations, including All4Ed, called the bill “a step backward in the nation’s response to COVID-19,” citing issues with making K–12 aid contingent on in-person instruction, providing private schools with funds needed by public schools, and the lack of funding to address internet connectivity.
National teachers’ unions also responded negatively with concerns that Republicans’ focus on in-person instruction could cause teachers to return to unsafe working conditions. The American Federation of Teachers said it will back members who choose to go on strike for fear of their safety. The union is pushing for schools to wait to reopen until coronavirus transmission rates in a community fall below 1 percent and average daily test positive rates stay below 5 percent. Currently only two of the ten largest districts could reopen under the latter threshold.
CDC Issues New Guidance for Schools
Finally, last week the CDC released new guidance for schools. The series of documents comes on the heels of the White House’s demand that the CDC revise its guidelines for reopening schools. Though the CDC declined to complete a full revision, the new guidance falls in line with the Trump Administration’s position on the importance of in-person instruction. It states that the coronavirus “poses low risks” to children, who are unlikely to be major drivers of disease spread and who could be harmed by extended closures.
The new CDC guidance documents provide clearer recommendations about wearing masks in schools, additional guidance for administrators about preparing to reopen buildings, and checklists for families to help decide if they should send their children back to school.
This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the July 29 episode of Federal Flash, All4Ed’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. The podcast and video versions are embedded below. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anne Hyslop is assistant director for policy development and government relations at All4Ed.