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Feds Seek New Data About Pandemic's Effects on School Funding, Accountability

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The U.S. Department of Education wants to find out the coronavirus pandemic's impact on how states and schools use federal aid and flexibility from certain mandates.

In a notice scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday, the department said it was seeking approval for a new data collection about those issues through the Institute for Education Sciences. 

"The coronavirus pandemic significantly disrupted K-12 educational operations and learning in spring 2020 and is likely to do so again during the 2020-21 school year," the scheduled notice states. "Federal education policies and funding are intended to support state and local agencies as they respond to the crisis. But the crisis may also shape the way federal programs are carried out."

Here are the two areas where the Education Department wants to do the new data collection:

  1. "Implementation of, and waivers, from key provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015."
  2. "State and district use of federal funds, including those provided specifically to help in the pandemic recovery."

In the earliest phase of the pandemic, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos granted several waivers from federal mandates—perhaps her most prominent decision on that front was to let every state and jurisdiction cancel annual tests in the spring. However, DeVos' team has indicated that at this point it's not inclined to grant those testing waivers again. In general, as time has gone on, DeVos has pushed schools to meet their obligations as the new school year gets under way.

In late March, the CARES Act provided roughly $13 billion in direct aid for school districts, as well as additional aid governors could spend on K-12 and higher education. Schools could spend that money on everything from hygiene and sanitation to mental-health support for students. Roughly two months after the law was enacted, a federal watchdog found that states had spent just a small fraction of CARES education aid, although it's not clear to what extent that's changed as the summer has progressed.

DeVos has also caused a stir with how she's approached the issue of CARES funding and private schools. Typically, under a provision of federal law known as equitable services, disadvantaged students in private schools who are struggling qualify for certain services like tutoring. However, DeVos has pushed for private school students in general to receive equitable services under CARES. Her interim final rule on that subject is now the subject of multiple lawsuits in federal court. 

If the proposed data collection becomes a reality, we could eventually learn a lot more about how states and schools handled key policy questions during the pandemic. 

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, right, talks to Anne Kramer Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction at the Edward Hynes Charter School in New Orleans during a visit by DeVos to the school. (Gerald Herbert/AP Photo)


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