The quest to educate students in the K–12 and higher education systems during the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Today’s Federal Flash covers four coronavirus-related issues: (1) recommendations from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on further flexibility under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), (2) federal relief for state education agencies to support K–12 schools, (3) new competitive grant funding for states to “rethink” K–12 education and workforce preparation, and (4) COVID-19’s effect on completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).
IDEA Provisions Preserved During COVID-19
The wait is over. In a report to Congress released Monday, Secretary DeVos declined to request any significant waiver authority from provisions of IDEA or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. While she did suggest waiving several smaller provisions related to scholarships for teacher preparation and transitions for children receiving infant and toddler services to early childhood programs, DeVos left the heart of IDEA untouched: the right of a student with a disability to a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.
Our viewers may recall that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act gave Secretary Devos thirty days to report whether waivers were needed under a slew of federal laws, including IDEA. This set up a showdown between special education administrators, who argued flexibility was needed as they struggled to reach students with disabilities during school closures, and special education advocates, including the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), who argued that waivers were unnecessary because IDEA was flexible by design. While Congress still has the final say, Secretary DeVos’s recommendations are a win for advocates who were concerned that IDEA waivers would undercut students’ civil rights.
Federal Relief for State Education Agencies
In addition to its waiver provisions, the CARES Act provided more than $30 billion for education, including $13.2 billion for K–12 state education agencies. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released the application for this Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. States and school districts will receive funding based on their relative share of Title I funding in Fiscal Year 2019. States must distribute 90 percent of funds to districts, including charter schools, and may reserve up to 10 percent of funds to support coronavirus efforts at the state level.
In a letter to chief state school officers, Secretary DeVos said she will not “micromanage” how the funds are spent. She did encourage states to think creatively about technology infrastructure and professional development that will help students learn remotely, including by requiring states to explain if they will use funds for these purposes when they apply.
State chiefs have until July 1 to apply, and ED expects to obligate funds to states within three business days of receiving a signed certification and agreement. More information, including how much money each state will receive, is available at https://oese.ed.gov/offices/education-stabilization-fund/elementary-secondary-school-emergency-relief-fund/.
New Competitive Grants for COVID-19 Relief
Also on Monday, Secretary DeVos announced a $307 million grant competition authorized by the CARES Act to support states with the highest coronavirus burden. ED has allocated $180 million for what it has dubbed Rethink K–12 School Models Grants and $127.5 million for Reimagining Workforce Preparation Grants.
State education agencies can apply for a Rethink K–12 School Models Grant in three categories aligned with Secretary DeVos’s priorities: (1) microgrants for families to ensure access to technology, (2) statewide virtual learning and course access programs, and (3) new models for providing remote education. Grants are expected to range from $5 million to $20 million.
The announcement was met with controversy, especially from those who believe microgrants are a form of school vouchers. Parents could use the payments they receive, for example, to cover tuition costs for online education programs offered by private organizations. Unsurprisingly, some Democrats in Congress were quick to criticize the program as a misuse of CARES Act funds. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education, rebuked the Secretary’s plan to fund “divisive, ideologically-driven policy priorities: including voucher-like proposals.”
The Reimagining Workforce Preparation Grants are designed to support state efforts to expand short-term postsecondary education programs and work-based learning opportunities to help Americans return to work, but specific priorities for funding have not yet been announced.
Application packages for these competitions will be available within two weeks, and applicants will have sixty days to apply. More information is available at https://oese.ed.gov/offices/education-stabilization-fund/states-highest-coronavirus-burden/?utm_content=&utm_medium=email&utm_name=&utm_source=govdelivery&utm_term=.
COVID-19’s Effect on FAFSA® Completion Rates
Finally, while ED has been busy rolling out education stabilization funds from the CARES Act, a group of House Democrats are raising concerns about completion of the FAFSA® during the coronavirus pandemic. In a letter led by Representatives Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and Conor Lamb (D-PA), lawmakers asked Secretary DeVos for more FAFSA® guidance for students, parents, and financial aid administrators given students’ rapidly shifting financial situations and declining FAFSA® completion rates. In particular, the letter asks for an opportunity for students to submit updated financial information, for financial aid officers to get support in using professional judgment to recalculate students’ expected family contributions, and for ED to reinstate a strategy used after the 2008 recession in which ED and the U.S. Department of Labor partnered to inform recently unemployed individuals of their potential to access federal financial aid.
The letter is timely as the National College Attainment Network found that between March 13 and April 3, FAFSA® completion rates among high school seniors in the Class of 2020 were 2 percentage points lower compared to last year. That means 34,000 fewer students completed the FAFSA® by April 3 this year. What’s more concerning is that the decrease is sharper for students who attend high-poverty high schools. By April 3, student FAFSA® completions at Title I–eligible high schools were 2.6 percentage points behind their totals from the same date last year, compared to just 1.5 percentage points behind for high schools that are not Title I–eligible. For more information, visit ncan.org/news/news.asp?id=501374.
This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the April 29 episode of Federal Flash, All4Ed’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email firstname.lastname@example.org.