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Schools Would Get Nearly $60 Billion in Democrats' New COVID-19 Relief Proposal

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UPDATED

New legislation from House Democrats would provide nearly $60 billion to K-12 school districts to help them address the coronavirus pandemic, although Republicans who control the Senate are likely to ignore the legislation, which falls short of public demands from education advocacy groups. 

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act would create a $90 billlion "state fiscal stabilization fund" for the U.S. Department of Education to distribute to K-12 as well as higher education. After deducting a small share of money for administrative and other expenses, 65 percent of that fund—or roughly $58 billion—would go through states to local school districts, with 30 percent set aside for public colleges and universities. This money could support a large variety of services under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Invididuals with Disabilities Education Act, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and other federal mandates.

Any school district that receives this aid "shall to the greatest extent practicable, continue to pay its employees and contractors during the period of any disruptions or closures related to coronavirus," the bill states. That language mirrors the last coronavirus aid bill that became law in late March and provided just over $13 billion in direct aid for districts. This HEROES Act money would be available until Sept. 30, 2022. 

The bill does include nearly $1 billion to shore up state and local government budgets that could be a big help for schools in many instances. However, it's obviously unclear exactly how much of that money would ultimately reach local school districts, and the education lobbying community has put a heavy emphasis on creating a big stabilization fund specifically for education in the next federal aid package. 

In addition, the bill would provide $1.5 billion to help schools and libraries provide internet services through an Emergency Connectivity Fund at the Federal Communications Commission. 

The education lobbying world has been asking for much more for a state stabilization fund for K-12 and higher education. Recent demands from those groups have called for federal lawmakers to provide at least $175 billion for such a pot of money, as part of a broader request of at least $250 billion for education. While it's arguable that those making such demands knew that it would be a long shot, they'll still almost certainly be disappointed.

And again, since Senate Republicans don't appear inclined to provide $175 billion for education in a new relief bill, the Democrats' HEROES Act could end up serving largely as a way to publicly undescore their priorities. It's unlikely any final agreement on the next phase of coronavirus relief negotiated by lawmakers will closely resemble or match key provisions of this bill. 

Under the HEROES Act, 61 percent of the stabilization fund would go out to states (and then on to districts as subgrants) on the basis of their relative population of people aged 5 to 24, while 39 percent would be distributed to states on the basis of the relative number of children counted for district grants under Title I of ESSA. 

The new proposal's Emergency Connectivity Fund would help schools connect students to the internet and provide them with internet-connected devices. Its $1.5 billion number is lower than the request in two separate bills from Democrats; one from Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., proposed $2 billion to bolster student internet access, while another championed by several Senate Democrats led by Sen. Ed. Markey, D-Mass., would provide $4 billion

Beefing up students' internet access has been a top priority for several education advocacy groups since lawmakers passed the Coronavirus Act, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in late March without additional, dedicated funding to help students get online. Advocates say it's critical for the federal government to provide more resources to help close the digital divide that leaves millions of students without access to reliable internet. 

Here are a few other notable provisions about the bill:

  • The legislation states that HEROES money couldn't be used to "provide financial assistance to students to attend private elementary or secondary schools" except as required for students in special education and under IDEA. Although it might have little practical impact on how districts might use the money, it does underscore Democats' desire to keep the funds out of any private school choice programs. 
  • The HEROES Act also seeks to nullify recent guidance from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about coronavirus relief and private schools. Under ESSA, districts must provide equitable services to certain groups of students (like those considered at risk of failing) in their attendance areas who attend private schools. The recent DeVos guidance says that all private school students are eligible for equitable services under the CARES Act, regardless of their status. But the HEROES Act says only students identified as eligible for those services under ESSA are eligible for equitable services.
  • Unlike the CARES Act, there's no governor's fund in the new proposal that state executives could distribute at their discretion to K-12 and higher education that's included in the HEROES Act's state stabilization fund. There's also no dedicated set-aside for state education departments to use. 
  • Any HEROES grants not awarded by governors to school districts (or institutions of higher education) within two years must be returned to the education secretary.
  • The state stabilziation fund "may be used to support hourly workers, such as education support professionals, classified school employees, and adjunct and contingent faculty," the bill says.

Photo: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. listens to questions during a news conference on Capitol Hill Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)


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