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COVID-19 Raises Multiple Education Policy Questions

This blog post is written by AACTE consultant Jane West and is intended to provide updated information. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

How Will the Senate Respond to the House Passed $3 Trillion HEROES Act?

Last week the House passed its follow up to the $2 trillion CARES Act by adopting the HEROES Act— the next COVID-19 relief bill. The Senate does not appear to be in a hurry to act and has clearly articulated different priorities from those in the HEROES Act.

Educators and their congressional allies are weighing in for a strong infusion of cash for education in the next bill.  In the House, Reps. Tlaib (D-MI), Hayes (D-CT) and Pressley (D-MA) are circulating a letter to their colleagues that requests $305 billion be targeted to K-12 education in the next COVID-19 bill.  In comparison, the HEROES Act targets $58 billion to K-12 education. Many education organizations are supporting their request, including the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and AASA: The School Superintendents Association.

On the higher education side, almost 80 education organizations have requested that the maximum for the Pell Grant be doubled, anticipating that students will be facing unprecedented struggles when starting the new academic year and beyond.

In the Senate, a bipartisan letter was released led by Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) urging an increased investment for education in the next COVID-relief bill.  In his press release, Sen. Jones notes “Prior to this pandemic, many Alabama schools were already struggling with a shortage of qualified teachers, and shrinking budgets will worsen this problem …. We are particularly concerned about how the educator workforce and other school personnel will be impacted by COVID-19.”

Sec. DeVos Proceeds with Privatization Initiatives: How is Congress Responding?

Sec. DeVos has promoted the use of federal funds for privatization in two key initiatives utilizing funding intended to provide relief for the COVID-19 pandemic, the CARES Act. First, she issued guidance to states as to how they should distribute funding to K-12 schools. Historically, the funding has been distributed under a long-established Title I formula that allocates some funding for poor children attending private schools. DeVos directed states to calculate the amount going to private schools using the total number of students in private school, not just poor students. Thus, well-to-do students whose families are paying full private school tuition would also count in the distribution formula.

Leading democratic law makers Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) sent a letter to Sec. DeVos blasting this decision holding that it “seeks to repurpose hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars intended for public school students to private services for private school students, in contravention of both the plain reading of the statute and the intent of Congress.” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate HELP Committee, said he is not sure about Sec. DeVos’ interpretation of the law.  “I thought, and I think most of Congress thought, that money from the CARES Act would be distributed in the same way that Title I is distributed.”

The second initiative Devos is pursuing is the utilization of funds from the CARES Act for competitive grants that would “rethink” K-12 education and allow funds to be used as “microgrants” or vouchers for parents to purchase private services, pay private school tuition, purchase online courses and more. As of May 19, 17 states noted that they intended to apply for the funds. The deadline for applying is June 29.  It is expected that about 13 grants will be awarded to states. The HEROES Act would put the breaks on this use of fund; however, since its future is unknown it may not have any effect.  

Parental Complaints/Union Lawsuit Challenge IDEA Implementation During Pandemic

When Congress passed the CARES Act in March, they included a requirement that Sec. DeVos issue a report with recommendations as to whether she needed temporary waiver authority for provisions of IDEA and other education laws during the pandemic. The report recommended two very minor adjustments to the law, but none that a number of education organizations— including school boards and local superintendents—were requesting. One focus of the requests was extensions of timelines for IEP meetings and student evaluations. Disability and special education advocates mounted a strong campaign opposing waivers to the law. Advocates on both sides of the issue continue to weigh in with Congress eyeing the next COVID-19 relief bill as a possible vehicle for IDEA waivers. 

In the meantime, numerous developments in states have intensified deliberations.  In New Jersey some school districts distributed forms asking families to “waiver and relinquish; fully release and discharge; and indemnify and hold harmless” the school district in all of its employees “from all claims, liabilities, causes of action, costs, expenses, attorneys’ fees, damages, indemnities, and obligations of every kind and nature, in law, equity or otherwise” before providing student with counseling and speech services required by their IEPs.  

The state of Virginia is investigating Fairfax County Public Schools in response to allegations that it has failed to provide equal learning opportunities for students with disabilities. 

In Pennsylvania, a lawsuit was filed in federal court on behalf of students with autism and seeking class action status. The suit seeks to require services for nonverbal and partially verbal students as life-sustaining, thus ensuring they are considered “essential workers” who would be required to work in person during the pandemic.

And finally, the Chicago Teachers Union filed suit against Sec. Devos and the school district challenging the requirement to review and revise IEPS and accommodation plans for students with disabilities during the pandemic.  The union argues that Sec. DeVos acted “arbitrarily and capriciously, and abused the discretion granted by the Cares Act” by failing to recommend waivers to these requirements in IDEA.

Read the full Washington Update on my website for more information.

Washington Update will take a break next week and be back with you June 5. See you on twitter @janewestdc.


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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant