As Congress Weighs Additional Funding, DeVos Suggests Schools That Stay Closed Don’t Need More Federal Relief
In light of the increasing number of school districts opting for remote learning this fall, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has emphasized that keeping schools closed will impact negotiations for the next pandemic relief package.
During a conversation with faith-based school leaders on Wednesday, DeVos expressed her belief that districts choosing to keep their schools closed should not receive additional funding. Instead, she suggested that the funding should be given to parents who should have the ability to choose a faith-based education option for their children.
As Congress resumes its activities on Monday after a break, there will be pressure on the Senate to address the latest federal relief package, known as the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which was passed by the House in mid-May. However, the ongoing debate on school reopening is likely to complicate efforts to secure additional funding.
Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, highlights the real tension surrounding the decisions on school reopening while the discussion around funding continues. Online learning often requires a significant investment, leaving less resources available for other purposes.
Some district leaders have reported that remote teaching is actually more expensive than in-person instruction. This was particularly true during the spring, when schools had to purchase and distribute devices, provide internet access, and train teachers quickly in virtual instruction. Many districts also had to provide hazard pay for staff members who continued working in school buildings.
Laura Preston, a legislative advocate with the Association of California School Administrators, explains that these costs were enormous and had to be incurred without prior budgeting.
Looking ahead, the costliest options are likely to be hybrid models that combine online learning with in-person instruction. Many state and local officials seem to favor this approach. However, hybrid models can lead to increased costs as districts must implement safety protocols in school buildings while simultaneously conducting online classes. Additionally, double shifts and the need for additional bus routes can further add to the expenses.
For instance, the Milwaukee Public Schools estimate that their hybrid plan would require an additional $90 million in funding.
DeVos’s comments to faith-based school leaders align with President Donald Trump’s tweets from the previous week, indicating that he may cut off funding if schools remained closed. DeVos reinforced this stance in an interview, emphasizing that schools should be fully operational and open.
Despite the administration’s position, more and more school districts are rejecting the idea due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
Wyoming state Superintendent Jillian Balow, the current president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, urges fellow state chiefs to prioritize what is best for the students rather than be swayed by the politics of reopening.
The administration has hinted that it will utilize the relief package to advocate for its Education Freedom Scholarships plan, a tax-credit system akin to the Montana program recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
However, DeVos’s plan has faced resistance in Congress. Noelle Ellerson Ng from AASA, The School Superintendents Association, suggests that the Secretary might view the next relief package as her final opportunity to achieve anything regarding school choice in this administration.
During the call with faith-based leaders, DeVos also discussed her intention for K-12 districts to share funds with private schools. She suggested that these funds could be used for health and safety procedures.
DeVos assured attendees that the administration would fight against any bias or discrimination against people of faith. Under current federal law, districts use Title I funds to provide services for low-income students in private schools. However, DeVos’s plan would require districts to share the funding allocated in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act with all students attending private schools in the district’s geographic area. She reiterated this point during the call, emphasizing that all students were affected by the pandemic and should benefit from the emergency funds.
Education groups argue that this broader interpretation, which would allocate more money to private schools, goes against the original purpose of federal law. Five states and the District of Columbia have recently filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging this rule.
The current version of the HEROES Act has proposed changes to the interpretation of the "equitable services" rule in the previous relief package passed in March.
Florida is being referred to as "ground zero" due to the significant increase in coronavirus cases. The HEROES Act includes funding of nearly $60 billion for K-12 schools to cover various expenses related to teaching, student services, and school operations. However, this amount is far less than what the state chiefs organization estimates is necessary to safely reopen school buildings, which is estimated to be between $158 billion and $244 billion.
Steve Gallon III, the vice chair of Miami-Dade County Schools, emphasized the need for additional resources to limit the spread of COVID-19. He estimated that the district would require an additional $65 million to $85 million for personal protective equipment (PPE), transportation, and custodial staff.
Additionally, the HEROES Act includes $875 billion in flexible funding for states, cities, and counties. This funding not only benefits businesses but also supports schools.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated that schools will be a priority in the next stimulus deal. However, he has described the HEROES Act as an unrealistic wish list from House Democrats.
Superintendents are concerned about liability and are hoping for legal protections as well as flexible timelines for providing special education services. The number of lawsuits against districts due to the lack of services for special education students has increased.
Parent advocacy groups are pushing for specific requirements in distance learning plans, which include live interaction with teachers, assessments, feedback on student work, and access to proper technology.
Districts are still addressing teachers’ concerns about reopening, and some unions have yet to agree on a plan. Different states have proposed phased-in reopening plans, while others are advocating for a virtual start to the year.
While a new relief package is being considered, many districts have yet to receive funds from the previous package, including the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Only a small percentage of the promised funds have reached districts so far.
States are planning to use the flexible fund provided by the CARES Act to improve their distance learning systems, primarily focusing on devices, internet access, and virtual learning platforms. Reports on the usage of these funds are expected to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.
Overall, districts and schools are facing various challenges and financial constraints as they navigate the reopening process and adapt to the needs of students during the ongoing pandemic.
The department required states to commit to maintaining their current spending on education in order to receive the stabilization funds. This was one of the reasons why Wyoming was the last state to apply for federal aid. According to Balow, it was a difficult guarantee to make.
However, states will have the option to request a waiver from this requirement if they experience significant decreases in revenue. Balow believes that this will be a major concern for many states as they face funding shortfalls.
While President Trump has been pushing for schools to reopen, he has not paid much attention to the child care industry, which is seen as crucial for economic recovery by advocates and Democrats.
The HEROES Act allocates $7 billion for child care, but advocates argue that $50 billion is needed to rebuild the system, as many providers are at risk of permanent closure. This $50 billion figure is also proposed in the Child Care Is Essential Act, sponsored by Senator Patty Murray and other Democrats.
Recently, Senator Joni Ernst and Senator Lamar Alexander introduced the Back to Work Child Care Grants Act, which would provide assistance to child care providers for nine months as they reopen. The exact funding amount would be determined through the appropriations process.
Senator Alexander emphasized the importance of child care for working parents, stating that without safe child care options, parents cannot go to work.
However, Senator Murray criticized this proposal, claiming that it is insufficient to address the current crisis.
The HEROES Act also includes $3 billion for child nutrition programs to compensate for the losses experienced by school meal programs during school closures. The School Nutrition Association has called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend waivers that have allowed schools to operate grab-and-go meal sites, have flexibility in menu options, and distribute meals in more locations.
In summary, the Department of Education requires states to maintain their education spending to receive stabilization funds, with waivers available for states facing revenue declines. The child care industry, seen as crucial to economic recovery, has received less attention from President Trump. Different proposals, such as the HEROES Act and the Back to Work Child Care Grants Act, aim to provide funding for child care providers. Additionally, the HEROES Act includes funding for child nutrition programs, and the School Nutrition Association is advocating for waivers to continue providing free meals to students.