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Federal Flash: The Trump Administration Faces Backlash on Plan to Reopen Schools

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July 16, 2020 03:45 pm

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Today’s Federal Flash, covers the backlash over the White House’s push to reopen school buildings full time in the fall. It also shares updates on the House education spending bill for next fiscal year, the Education Department’s postponement of the Civil Rights Data Collection, and a lawsuit to overturn Secretary DeVos’ rule on equitable services under the CARES Act.  

The Trump Administration’s Demand to Reopen Schools

As coronavirus cases surge across the country, the Trump administration has come out with an aggressive push for full-time, in-person instruction in the fall—arguing that guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on reopening schools safely shouldn’t be a “barrier” for local officials. To persuade schools to follow these demands, the President even threatened to cut funding for districts that begin the school year only offering virtual learning or a hybrid approach.  

Trump’s comments faced blowback from many education and public health experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, whose guidance was touted by the Administration in its demand for school buildings to reopen. Specifically, pediatricians joined with teachers’ unions and school superintendents to urge against a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening schools, noting that schools and districts must consider local needs and the threat of COVID-19 spread before making decisions about in-person learning. The coalition stated [QUOTE] “schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts.” 

For now, the President’s threat appears to be an empty one. He has no authority to cut off funding, or tie new requirements to funding, that Congress has already allocated. For example, online schools receive Title I and other funds under ESSA; there is no prohibition against full-time virtual schools. Likewise, in distributing coronavirus relief under the CARES Act, states and districts were encouraged by Secretary DeVos to use the funds on remote learning.

Vice President Pence suggested the Administration might leverage future coronavirus funding to urge districts to reopen with students in-person. Secretary DeVos expressed interest in allowing parents to use relief funds as a voucher if the district isn’t fully reopening schools. Both ideas, however, would require Congressional approval.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to drop a coronavirus relief proposal next week, but it is uncertain whether it will include conditions tied to school reopenings. Senate Education Committee chairman Lamar Alexander, however, has suggested that Congress should make some aid available to all school districts, with additional funds for those working to open reopen in-person this fall. Updates will be provided on Senate negotiations as the August recess nears.

Congress Unveils Spending Bill for the Department of Education

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, the House Appropriations Committee advanced its annual spending bill for the Department of Education, which would provide $73.5 billion for the agency in fiscal year 2021, $716 million over the prior fiscal year. This includes a modest $254 million increase for Title I and a $194 million increase for IDEA and a $40 million cut to the federal program for charter school expansion.

The House hopes to pass its spending bill prior to the August recess, but the Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to schedule a markup of its own. Therefore, the appropriations process might not make headway for months, raising the prospect that Congress will roll over current spending beyond the end of the fiscal year on September 30. 

Education Department Postpones Civil Rights Data Collection

In other delays, the Department announced that it will postpone the latest round of Civil Rights Data Collection, or CRDC, to the 2020-21 school year citing uncertainty and unreliability of data due to the coronavirus. Though there is no federal law mandating the collection occur every two years, the CRDC has been collected biennially since 1968.

The Department’s announcement to delay the collection is not the only proposed change. As noted before on Federal Flash, the Department continues its push to eliminate valuable CRDC data elements about preschool enrollment, teacher experience, school-level funding, and more.

Proponents of the CRDC, including Democratic lawmakers, expressed concern that the delay could prevent the public from accessing information about educational equity that is even more critical in light of COVID-19’s impact on communities of color. The proposed changes are open for public comment until August 6. To submit a comment, visit the link here.

Secretary DeVos’ Restrictions on Equitable Services For Districts That Do Not Count Total Number of Students

There has been an update on Secretary DeVos’ rule on equitable services. As discussed previously on Federal Flash, the rule allows districts to choose how to calculate the CARES Act equitable services set-aside, but with significant strings for districts that do not choose Secretary DeVos’ preferred method based on the total number of students in private schools.

In reaction, the state attorneys general for California and Michigan filed a lawsuit to overturn the rule, which was joined by Maine, New Mexico, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia. They argue that the rule exceeds the Department’s authority under the CARES Act and takes resources away from needy students by improperly providing them to private school students, including those from affluent backgrounds. Updates will be provided as the issue moves through the courts. Additionally, the public can submit comments on the rule until July 31 at this link.


This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the July 2 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 alliance@all4ed.org.

Anne Hyslop is assistant director for policy development and government relations at All4Ed.


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