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Federal Flash: USDA Decision Threatens Student Access to Free Meals During COVID-19

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August 25, 2020 10:12 pm

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In today’s Federal Flash, we cover the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) refusal to extend waivers that give schools flexibility on where and how to serve students meals during the pandemic and an injunction halting Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s rule on equitable services under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In addition, we breakdown both political parties’ education platforms—or lack thereof—heading into the 2020 election and the prospects for Senate Republicans’ latest “skinny” coronavirus relief bill.

USDA Won’t Extend School Meal Waivers

As more school districts plan to continue with online learning exclusively this fall, many students could lose access to free school meals. That’s because the USDA will let certain waivers expire that have enabled schools to serve meals more easily to students during school closures—such as flexibility to set up meal sites in convenient places around the community and to serve all children seeking a meal without any paperwork.  

As we discussed in a previous episode of Federal Flash, without the flexibility, students will be able to receive meals only from the school where they are enrolled after being deemed eligible—a change that would create logistical barriers for many families. The expiration of the waivers likely will result in many food service administrators choosing to limit their days of operation and deny uncertified students in need access to healthy meals.

Republicans and Democrats have urged Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to extend the waivers through the 2020–21 school year. Perdue responded that the USDA lacked Congressional authority to implement the extension, as it would function like a universal school meals program that has not been authorized by lawmakers.

The House Committee on Education and Labor called Perdue’s decision “a major blow,” with Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) predicting that “the tragic rise in child hunger across the country will surely get worse.” Now, a broad coalition of governors, state and district superintendents, school administrators, classroom educators, parent groups, and other advocates including the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) are calling on Congress to ensure the USDA has the authority to extend these waivers. We’ll keep you posted.

Federal Judge Stops Rule that Directs CARES Act Funds to Private Schools

Last week, a Washington state judge issued an injunction to stop Secretary DeVos’s rule on providing equitable services to private school students under the CARES Act. The rule encourages districts to set aside CARES dollars for private school students not as they do under Title I, but rather based on the total number of students in private schools, regardless of income. This interpretation received bipartisan criticism that it ran afoul of the law.

U.S. District Court Judge Barbara J. Rothstein agreed, finding that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) subverted Congressional intent and hurt students most affected by the pandemic. She also questioned whether Secretary DeVos had the authority to condition CARES Act funds in this manner.

However, this is not the only lawsuit challenging the equitable services rule, and attorneys for ED are arguing in a separate case that the injunction only applies to schools in Washington state. We’ll be following these cases as they move through the courts.

Democratic Party Adopts 2020 Platform

At last week’s Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party officially adopted its 2020 platform, including tripling Title I funding for disadvantaged students, supporting universal preK, and promoting school integration. In addition, the platform champions diversifying the teacher workforce and increasing educator pay and benefits. It also supports measures to increase accountability for charter schools and advocate for moving away from “high-stakes testing”—ideas that align with teachers’ unions policy preferences, but at odds with many civil rights groups and other reform-minded advocates who support charters, accountability, and transparent reporting on student achievement.

Meanwhile the Republican Party is not adopting a platform at its convention, instead carrying forward its platform from 2016. President Trump did release a second-term agenda with just two education priorities: providing school choice to all students and teaching “American exceptionalism.”

GOP Proposes “Skinny” Coronavirus Relief Package

Over on Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans floated a smaller coronavirus relief package amid the impasse in negotiations between the White House and top Democratic leaders. In addition to much-needed funding for the U.S. Postal Service, the so-called “skinny” relief bill maintains most of the education provisions from Republicans’ more comprehensive $1 trillion Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act. The GOP is not budging from using federal relief funds to incentivize schools to reopen for in-person instruction this fall, despite the fact that school already has begun in many parts of the country and several districts offering in-person options have been forced to change their plans after COVID-19 outbreaks.

Democratic lawmakers already have dismissed the idea of a narrow coronavirus relief package—insisting on comprehensive legislation to address the severity of the pandemic. We’ll keep you posted on the negotiations as members of Congress return to DC after Labor Day.

New Title IX Rule Takes Effect

Finally, Secretary DeVos’s new Title IX rule, which details how schools and universities must respond to claims of sexual assault and harassment, has taken effect. The controversial rule, which was announced in May, became official earlier this month after a DC circuit court judge sided with ED in a lawsuit filed by seventeen states and Washington, DC.

As we previously noted on Federal Flash, the updated rule allows schools to use a “clear and convincing evidence” standard to decide if an assault claim requires a response—a higher bar to prove claims of misconduct than the “preponderance of evidence” standard recommended by the Obama administration in nonbinding guidance.

The rule, which carries the force of law unlike the Obama-era guidance, has been touted by Secretary DeVos as ensuring fairer treatment for those accused of misconduct. However, advocates worry it will discourage would-be complainants from coming forward, especially because colleges—but not K–12 schools—must now respond to complaints by facilitating hearings where representatives for the alleged perpetrator and victim can call witnesses.


This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the August 26 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.


Phillip Lovell is vice president of policy development and government relations and Anne Hyslop is assistant director for policy development and government relations at All4Ed.

Categories:
coronavirus, Federal Flash

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