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Special Education Advocates Clash on IDEA Flexibility

As governors extend stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of COVID-19, thirty-four states and counting have mandated or recommended that schools remain closed for the rest of the school year, affecting 38.6 million children.

In today’s Federal Flash, we’ll discuss three coronavirus-related issues: funding for governors to support education, new legislation to close the homework gap, and the clash between special education administrators and advocates regarding waivers from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) during the pandemic. We’ll also cover the federal court decision vacating the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back Obama-era nutrition standards for school meals and the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) proposal to give educators vouchers or stipends to choose their own professional development courses.

Education Funding During COVID-19

Our viewers may recall that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided more than $30 billion for education, including $3 billion for governors. Last week, ED released the application for these funds. Governors can use the emergency aid to provide school districts, colleges, and other education-related entities with resources to respond to the coronavirus. Grants will be awarded based on a state’s student-aged population and poverty levels.

In a letter to governors, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called the emergency funds “extraordinarily flexible” but encouraged states to spend funds on expanding and improving remote learning experiences. Each of the three required questions in the application asks states to describe whether they will use funds to support various aspects of virtual learning.

Governors have until June 1 to apply, and ED expects to obligate funds to states within three business days of receiving a signed certification and agreement. More information is available

Secretary DeVos also has begun the process of distributing the $14 billion for institutions of higher education included in the CARES Act, but we have yet to hear how and when the $13 billion for K–12 education will be distributed. We’ll keep viewers posted.

Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020

Meanwhile, Congress continues to debate further coronavirus relief. Lawmakers and the White House have just struck a deal on a $484 billion aid package for small businesses, hospitals, and coronavirus testing, but will there be additional funding for education in future aid packages? Advocates and educators certainly hope so.

As part of this effort, the Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020 was introduced this week by Representative Grace Meng (D-NY). The legislation would create a $2 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund to ensure students have home internet access during school closures caused by the pandemic. The Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) and many other organizations support the bill, but Congress has extended its recess until early May due to the pandemic, so it likely will be several weeks before we know whether this or any other additional funding will be provided for education.

IDEA Requirements During School Closures

A clash is brewing among the special education community regarding how to support students with disabilities during school closures. The CARES Act included language giving Secretary DeVos thirty days to tell Congress if she needs authority to waive parts of IDEA. As a result, the Council of Administrators of Special Education and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education recently sent a letter to Congress requesting waivers from timelines, procedures, and fiscal management under IDEA. These groups say that in many situations, meeting IDEA requirements during the pandemic is impossible.

On the other hand, more than seventy national disability, advocacy, and civil rights organizations—including All4Ed—oppose such waivers. We believe that IDEA offers flexibility by design and during this pandemic it is essential to protect the civil rights of students with disabilities. Instead of waivers, we have urged Congress to provide robust funding to states and school districts to better support students with disabilities during this national emergency.

School Lunches and Teacher Professional Development

In other news, a federal court ruled last week that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) 2018 rule to loosen whole grain and sodium standards in school meals violated the Administrative Procedure Act. That act governs the process by which federal agencies develop and issue regulations. The stricter nutrition standards had been championed by former first lady Michelle Obama. If the USDA wants to keep its amended policy, the agency will likely have to restart the rulemaking process, which can take years. The Trump administration has sixty days to appeal the decision.

Finally, ED has proposed a new priority for the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program, which helps support evidence-based innovations that will improve student achievement for high-need students. ED is proposing to give educators vouchers or stipends to choose their own professional development courses. They believe this approach may be more effective at “improving instructional practice and student outcomes than … one-size-fits-all professional development activities.” Congressional Democrats, however, are skeptical. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing ED’s budget, called the proposal “unreasonable and unwise” and suggested that “[a] better approach would be to provide school districts with resources to invest in high-quality, evidence-based professional development experiences.”

Comments on the proposal are due on May 13. For more information, visit  

This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the April 22 episode of Federal Flash, the Alliance for Excellent Education’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