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Will Voucher Initiatives Prevail?

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.

Senate to Reconvene May 4 as House Stays Home—Mostly

Congress has been on recess for a month leaving a scant few Members in town to hold down the fort. This week both the House and Senate announced they would return full force on May 4, but only a day later, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) retracted the announcement for the House saying the Capitol physician advised against it. Members are still regrouping from the whiplash announcement and retraction—assessing the political fallout—but relieved about the health risks had they returned. 

Sen. McConnell (R-KY), Senate Majority Leader, has not backed down despite push back from several Senators, and the full Senate is scheduled to be in town May 4. They will likely be in town until May 22, recessing for Memorial Day. Many unanswered questions remain.  Will staff be required to report to work? Will social distancing be enforced? What are the cleaning procedures for office spaces and the Capitol? Will masks and gloves be worn? We shall see.

While the full House will not be in session, the intrepid Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) announced that the Subcommittee on Labor/HHS/Education Appropriations, which she chairs, will convene in the flesh to hold an oversight hearing on the implementation of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act on May 6 at 10 am.  The witness list has not yet been announced and it is not known if education will be addressedThis is guaranteed to feature pointed questions by Democrats on the Committee.

Watch House Labor/HHS/Education Appropriations hearing on COVID-19 response May 6 at 10:00 a.m.

Sec. DeVos Pushes Privatization with Three New Initiatives

While schools scramble to put education services in place in the midst of a national emergency, U.S. Sec. of Education Betsy DeVos moves forward with three privatization schemes. The first is a program she invented using COVID-19 funds under the CARES Act.  It has two components—one for K-12 at $180 million (“Rethink K12 Education models Grants”) and the other at $127.5 million (“Reimaging Workforce Preparation Grant”). The Rethink funding was telegraphed by DeVos some weeks ago when she praised the idea of “microgrants” to families of students with disabilities so they could purchase services. The grant competition announcement notes that the funds could be used for “special education and related services including therapies”as well as application fees for private schools. States will receive the awards for distribution; they are likely to average $15 million. It is interesting to note that the public comment period, which is standard practice for such a new initiative, was waived. This did not deter Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, who said DeVos was using the pandemic 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.”

Two notices appeared in the Federal Register in April, which also promote voucher-like ideas. The first proposes to prioritize State Personnel Development Grants (a $38 million IDEA funded program) for stipends to individual special educators so they may purchase their own individual professional development. The second, similarly, prioritizes funds under the Education Innovation and Research program (part of ESSA) to develop and implement teacher-directed professional learning projects, rather than “one-size fits all professional development activities often funded by school systems.” Both proposals are open for public comment—the IDEA program until May 26 and the ESSA program until May 13. Links to respond are below.

“Microgrant” initiative with CARES Act funds

Federal Register: ESSA/EIR proposal for voucher-like professional development – Comments due May 13.

Federal Register: IDEA State Personnel Development grants proposal for voucher-like professional development – Comments due May 26.

Sec. DeVos Issues Report to Congress on IDEA Waivers

The CARES Act required that Sec. DeVos submit a report to Congress with a list of statutory waivers to a number of federal education laws that she believes are needed during the COVID-19 emergency.  Policy watchers were focused on IDEA, anticipating a list which could strike at the heart of IDEA requirements, including the provision of a free appropriate public education. A number of administrative education organizations have made the case for the need for waivers, while most special education, civil rights and disability organizations oppose them.  Administrators fear an onslaught of lawsuits if adjustments are not made to the law, while advocates believe waivers will result in unprovided services. 

Those in Washington were surprised on Monday when her report was issued calling only for two rather minor timeline adjustments to IDEA (one related to the timeline for transitioning preschoolers into Part B of IDEA and the other adjusting the implementation of the service obligation under Personnel Preparation grants).  Requirements related to the provision of a Free Appropriate Public Education were untouched. 

While the special education advocacy community was relieved, administrators were disappointed, reiterating that they need flexibilities, particularly related to timelines, in order to be effective during the national emergency. Any waivers would have to be authorized in law by the Congress. Whether or not there will be a push to do that in the next COVID-19 relief bill remains to be seen. Learn more.

For more information, read the full Washington Update on my website. Follow me on Twitter @janewestdc.

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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant


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