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Four Things to Know About Betsy DeVos' COVID-19 Grants for Parents, States

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On Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unveiled competitive state coronavirus aid grants that fulfill two objectives for her: providing services for students affected by the virus, and emphasizing choice in federal education funding.

This "Rethink K-12 Education Models" program, which is getting $180 million under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, is divided into three grant priorities:

  • One is called "Continued Learning Parent Microgrants" that would help parents pay for services and connectivity.
  • Another is to help states create and set up "Statewide Virtual Learning and Course Access Programs" (think virtual schools).
  • And the third funds blue-sky ideas to improve distance education, and is called "Field-Initiated Projects for Educational Models for Remote Learning to Improve Student Outcomes."

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education filed a notice for the Federal Register (which is sort of like the federal government's diary) about these "Rethink" grants, to be officially published May 1. This invitation for applications provides a lot more details about the budding grant program. Here a few of its important elements. 

1) Parents can use the "microgrants" for all kinds of services

The notice lists several possible uses for the "parent microgrants." (These grants would be provided first to state education departments, which would then direct them to sevice providers at the direction of parents.) Here are a few of them: 

  • "Tuition and fees for a public or private course or program, especially online."
  • "Special education and related services including therapies." (On this front, however, the notice says this doesn't mean school districts get a break from their obligations under special education law.)
  • "Contracted educational services provided by a public or nonpublic school."
  • "Academic, college, and career counseling services."
  • "Application fees, including for public and nonpublic school students."

Parents can also use a portion of their microgrants for computer hardware and software,  internet access or hotspots, and instructional materials like textbooks; however, parents can't spend their entire microgrants on just those services. 

As the facilitators for these grants, meanwhile, states have to ensure they reach out "the most disadvantaged students and parents" about these grants.

The different ways parents can use this money makes the microgrants more similar to education savings accounts, as opposed to common voucher programs that are strictly for private school tuition. More on the distinction between ESAs and vouchers here

2) The grants can be used to create, or enlarge, virtual schools

States can use the second grant we listed above not just for virtual schools and course-access programs; they could also use them to implement instructional methods such as competency-based instruction. (More on that last concept here and here.)

Here's a key condition, however: The state would have to show how a proposed course-access program "would make a broad range of courses widely available and free for all students in the State, though a particular course need not be available to every student in the State."

The nation's largest virtual school, the Florida Virtual School, got its start in part with a grant of just $200,000 in 1996 for two school districts to provide five online courses; a Florida virtual high school launched a year later. So if leaders in a state have had interest in starting an online school but haven't yet, a Rethink grant could help seed one, assuming they can meet the requirements we mentioned above. (More on the money behind the grants in a bit.) 

3) Governors must support applying for the grants 

This one's pretty straightforward. The notice says that the application must "demonstrate support for the proposed project by the Governor of the State" such as through a signed letter. In general, states will be interested in finding new sources of revenue for the public sector as the economy struggles, including for K-12 schools. But it's also possible that some governors may decide that getting a slice of the $180 million may not be worth the administrative and other work these grants would entail for states. 

And some state executives—think Democrats—might also be wary of appearing to support DeVos' agenda even if there's some money attached.

To apply for the Rethink grants, states will have to demonstrate the burden the coronavirus has imposed on them by providing public health data or other information. 

4) There's no formal public comment period 

Normally in these situations, there's a window for members of the public, lobbyists, and others to submit written comments to the Education Department about a particular proposal. But that is (sorry) out the window in this case. Why? The department says that there's an exception to this rule that exempts "regulations governing the first grant competition under a new or substantially revised program authority." The notice then goes on to say that DeVos is taking advantage of this exemption and "has decided to forgo public comment" on various aspects of the grant. 

That hasn't stopped, and won't stop, people from weighing in publicly across different forums, of course. 

Bonus: The department estimates an average state grant award of $15 million

The Education Department is not bound to stick to that estimate. However, the notice also says that there will be an estimated total of 13 to 14 state awards under the Rethink grants, with each of the three grant priorities handing out an estimated four grants, depending on the quality of the applications. The grants could cover projects lasting 36 months, and there's no cost-matching or cost-sharing required by the states. 

Applications will be scored on the basis of 100 points. The section dealing with the state's coronavirus burden will account for up to 40 points; the section on the project services and plan will account for up to 35 points; and section on the state's management plan and "adequacy of resources" will account for up to 35 points. 

Fans of education choice rejoiced when the secretary announce the grant program, including the K-12 choice group DeVos used to lead, the American Federation for Children, which called the grants "good news for families." But American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said DeVos was exploiting the pandemic in order to turn "our public schools into online cash cows for her corporate friends and offering families vouchers that divert resources away from the schools that need those resources."

Photo: President Donald Trump listens as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a 2017 meeting with parents and teachers at the White House. --Evan Vucci/AP


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