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What Obama's Stimulus Had for Education That the Coronavirus Package Doesn't

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Remember the last time we had a big federal stimulus for education? The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ended up being a lot smaller than the coronavirus aid package President Donald Trump signed last week, but it included much more money for education in coping with the impact of the Great Recession. And it also teed up President Barack Obama's education agenda for his two terms. 

For those of you who weren't following the 2009 stimulus, that year Education Week broke down the education pieces of it in a handy pie chart. Here it is:

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Let's pause for a moment to remember that the third round of coronavirus aid Trump signed into law, and the $13.5 billion in aid earmarked solely for K-12 education, may not be the last time schools get federal assistance to deal with the fallout. (More on what might come next here.)

Again, perhaps the biggest difference between the 2009 stimulus and the coronavirus relief money is the size. Whereas states got a total of $53.6 billion in a stabilization fund 11 years ago, they're getting about $31 billion in the new stabilization fund.

The majority of the 2009 stabilization cash—$48.6 billion—went out to states by formula for early learning, K-12, and postsecondary education. The remaining money? It was earmarked for Race to the Top and the Investing in What Works and Innovation programs. 

Speaking of which, another significant disparity between the two stimulus packages is how much flexibility there is at a general level. Whereas the 2009 stimulus earmarked different amounts of funding for a total of 14 different programs and priorities (if you count "other"), governors and school districts have more discretion about how to use coronavirus aid in the new CARES Act.

The CARES Act lists 12 different allowable uses for the $13.5 billion earmarked for school districts. But these categories are written broadly, such as "any activity" authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act, as well as internet connectivity, mental health supports for students, and training staff on minimizing the spread of infectious diseases, among other things. And the roughly $3 billion set aside for governors to distribute to K-12 and higher education in the stabilization fund doesn't have much in the way of strings attached either.

Final point: We mentioned at the start that the 2009 stimulus didn't just shore up education budgets; its unprecedented windfall of education aid also helped the Obama administration put financia muscle behind its priorities. Those priorities focused on areas like standards and accountability.  

The CARES Act doesn't take the same approach. It's hard to see discrete elements of a Trump education policy agenda driving current coronavirus aid— although U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos indicated last week she wants to change that with plans for "microgrants." And eduation groups are already jockeying about what comes next in the anticipated fourth round of coronavirus relief.  

Photo: President Barack Obama, sitting next to 6th-grader Osman Yaya, spoke at Anacostia Library in Washington during in a live "virtual field trip" with middle school students in 2015. (Susan Walsh/AP)


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