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Top Education Watchdog Says Lessons From Stimulus Will Apply to COVID-19 Aid

Where there's federal money, there's the potential for that money to be mismanaged and used fraudulently. That's no different for new coronavirus relief aid for schools, the U.S. Department of Education's office of inspector general has announced. 

Earlier this week, the inspector general laid out its oversight priorities for money provided to states and schools under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—the law gave the Education Department's inspector general $7 million to do this work.

The office says its priorities for CARES aid oversight "will include auditing Department and grantee management and spending of these funds; examining the effectiveness of the relief programs; and investigating misuse, theft, and other criminal activity involving these funds." And the acting Inspector General Sandra Bruce is representing the Education Department on the new Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which consists of inspectors general from across the federal government and will monitor how coronavirus aid is used. 

You might remember Bruce because more than a year ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos decided to replace Bruce, but then backtracked after congressional Democrats protested. 

Here are the priorities for the inspector general when it comes to CARES money:

  • "Use of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund." (That's the roughly $13 billion inCARES money mostly earmarked for districts.)
  • "Processes for awarding and monitoring Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund." (That's the roughly $3 billion in CARES aid for governors to distribute to K-12 and higher education.)

And here's where the IG will pay attention when it comes to what the Education Department itself does:

  • "Process for awarding and monitoring Education Stabilization Fund Discretionary Grants." (That's the bulk of CARES education aid.)
  • "Process for awarding and monitoring Project SERV Grants." (These help schools recover from traumatic events.)
  • "Implementation of national emergency educational waivers authority." (Think waivers from mandatory tests, for example.)
  • "Oversight of States' continued compliance with certain requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act." (DeVos recently told Congress there should be no new waivers from IDEA's key provisions.)

In addition, the inspector general's office says it will keep in mind the results of oversight of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—the Great Recession-era stimulus—to the CARES Act.

In 2014, the Education Department's inspector general issued a "lessons learned" report from the 2009 stimulus. One striking passage from that report: "Since 2009, we have issued more than 50 audit reports on Department, recipient, and subrecipient implementation of the Act. We have also opened 218 criminal investigations involving allegations of fraud, waste, or abuse, and have reviewed 143 allegations of reprisal against people seeking whistleblower protection."

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