In today’s Federal Flash, a breakdown of new data shows that the homework gap is much larger than previously thought—especially for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and those living in rural areas. We’ll also provide an update on Senate Republicans’ coronavirus relief proposal and school nutrition advocates’ push to extend a key flexibility for school meal programs.
As schools across the country prepare for a blend of online and in-person learning this fall, the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) partnered with the National Indian Education Association, National Urban League, and UnidosUS to better understand students’ access to the high-speed internet and devices needed to participate in online learning from home. The report, Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap, finds that 16.9 million children lack the internet access necessary to support online learning—much larger than the previous estimate of 12 million children. In addition, one in ten families, or 7.3 million children, have no access to a desktop, laptop, or tablet computer at home.
In particular, students of color, students from low-income families, and students living in rural areas are far more likely than their peers to lack internet access or a computer. Just one in three Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native students have the high-speed internet access to participate fully in online learning. The same is true for 36 percent of Americans living in rural communities. But the homework gap is largest for students from low-income backgrounds: 45 percent of households making less than $25,000 annually and 32 percent of families making between $25,000 and $50,000 annually lack high-speed home internet.
Our report calls on Congress to pass Senator Ed Markey’s (D-MA) Emergency Educational Connections Act and provide $6.8 billion through the E-rate program in the next COVID-19 relief package. All4Ed CEO and President Deborah Delisle said, “Asking students—many of whom are from low-income or rural homes—to try to learn with a family member’s cell phone or with paper packets is neither acceptable nor sustainable. We need Congress to demonstrate their concern for all students’ learning by providing $6.8 billion in critical funding in the next stimulus legislation for internet and computer access for all students, no matter where they live.”
Visit all4ed.org/homeworkgap to view data on the homework gap in your state and other resources to support funding for home internet access.
Coronavirus Relief Package on the Horizon
As the August recess nears and expanded unemployment benefits are set to expire, Senate Republicans and the White House have been negotiating parameters of a new coronavirus relief package. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) previewed some key funding details last week, including $105 billion for education. Although this is more funding for the U.S. Department of Education than the $90 billion in the HEROES Act passed by House Democrats, it falls short of the $430 billion proposed by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) in the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act a few weeks ago.
Under the Republican plan, $30 billion would be provided for higher education, $5 billion for governors, and the remaining $70 billion for K–12 schools. However, while half of the K–12 portion would be available to all districts on a per-capita basis, the remaining half would only be available to districts that reopen their doors in the fall—effectively using federal funds to incentivize a return to in-person learning as President Trump has urged. Districts that take a hybrid approach of distance learning and some in-person instruction would likely be eligible for extra funding, but the threshold would mostly be defined by governors.
In addition, Senate Education Committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) introduced the School Choice Now Act, which could be part of the ongoing Senate negotiations. The legislation would redirect 10 percent of K–12 funding under the CARES Act for one-time emergency funding for scholarship-granting organizations, one of the White House’s and Secretary DeVos’ demands. These organizations could help families with private school tuition or homeschooling expenses. The bill also would provide permanent, dollar-for-dollar federal tax credits for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations, capped at $5 billion per year—mirroring the Trump administration’s longstanding Education Freedom Scholarships proposal.
We’ll keep you posted on Federal Flash as more details of the Senate Republican bill emerge, as well as reactions to them from Democrats and education advocates.
Providing School Meals During Remote Learning
Finally, school nutrition groups are asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to extend a key waiver for school lunch programs, set to expire on August 31. When the pandemic hit, the USDA allowed districts to provide lunch programs as they do over the summer and waived requirements for those programs to operate only in areas where most children are from low-income households, which enabled more kids to receive free meals with less hassle.
As many districts plan to continue with online learning exclusively in the fall, millions of students could lose access to free meals if the USDA does not extend this nationwide “area eligibility” waiver. Without the flexibility, students will only be able to receive meals from the school where they are enrolled, after being deemed eligible for help—a change that would create logistical barriers for many families. Without any response from the USDA, advocates are pressing lawmakers to include provisions and funding for free meals in the next coronavirus aid package.
This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the July 23 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.
Anne Hyslop is assistant director for policy development and government relations at All4Ed.