Invest Emergency Education Funds in Students, Not Systems

Invest Emergency Education Funds in Students, Not Systems
(Western Reserve Academy via AP)

Before lobbyists finish cobbling together the next congressional COVID-19 response bill, policymakers should pause and ensure the funds provided in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was signed into law in late March, are allocated wisely. The education funds included in the CARES Act, for example, have not reached school districts, schools, or students yet. The massive aid bill included a $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund to be split between governors, higher education institutions, and elementary and secondary education entities. While education bureaucracies will likely absorb much of the K-12 funding, governors should choose to spend their CARES Act funds in a student-centered and targeted way. 

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State and local governments’ responses to COVID-19 have resulted in unprecedented and widespread school closures. According to Education Week, more than 124,000 public and private schools across the country have closed their doors, impacting over 55 million U.S. students. Schools will remain closed in forty-three states for the duration of the school year. As schools shut down their brick-and-mortar locations, the transition to distance education was egregiously erratic. Districts incapable of implementing functioning online learning program infrastructure, like the inept Fairfax County, Virginia, have failed teachers, parents, and students miserably. In sharp contrast, many Florida school districts, private schools and charter school networks moved swiftly to online instruction.

This is certainly the largest educational disruption our nation has encountered, but it isn’t the only educational crisis our students could experience. Beyond the threat of pandemics, school locations may close in response to hurricanes, snowstorms, floods, or other unanticipated emergencies. Ideally, the country’s current accidental homeschooling experience will inspire states, school districts, and schools to equip every student for online learning, making future emergency transitions to full-time distance learning much smoother.

When the U.S. Department of Education announced the funding application process for the K-12 emergency education funding, Education Secretary DeVos encouraged states and districts to invest in, “tools and resources for distance education, ensuring student health and safety, and developing and implementing plans for the next school year.” The $13.23 billion Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief Fund (ESSER Fund) will flow from the federal government to state education departments and eventually to school districts and — one can hope —schools, teachers, and students. School systems should use the K-12 education funding provided by the CARES Act to ensure that their remote learning systems are fully operational and accessible for the remainder of this school year and beyond. In addition to investments in the technology necessary for online instruction, districts and schools (including private schools receiving CARES Act-funded equitable services) should use CARES Act funding to train teachers to quickly and effectively transition to online instruction.

The CARES Act also created a $3 billion Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund and governors must apply by June 1st for their state’s allocation. Governors should invest their education funds wisely and innovatively and, according to Secretary DeVos, “truly rethink and transform the approach to education during this national emergency and ensure learning continues.” The CARES Act and the U.S. Department of Education allowed governors significant flexibility with the funds. Governors can disperse funds to significantly impacted school districts, institutes of higher education, charter schools, and private schools, ideally by strategic investments in their state’s remote learning capacity. States could follow Alaska’s lead, for example, by partnering with the long-standing Florida Virtual School to offer high-quality online instruction.

Governors can also choose to allocate the GEER funds in a student-centered way by establishing K-12 education savings accounts (ESA) to cover families’ remote education expenses. In the five states with existing ESA programs, the governors could expand the existing programs. In other states, the governor could either provide funds to existing state-funded scholarship programs or create a GEER-funded ESA or scholarship for the next year. Parents could use the funds for technology, curriculum, online resources, tutoring, private school tuition, or summer courses to compensate for the early end to the school year. In areas where school districts are not providing online instruction or therapies for special needs students, parents can use the GEER-funded accounts to meet the needs of their children.

The education establishment has already asked Congress for $200 billion for the next COVID-19 relief package, plus additional infrastructure funds. Governors, policymakers, parents and other taxpayers should track federal education emergency aid carefully so the funds truly benefit students. This year’s school closures could profoundly transform how our country educates children. It’s vital that we spend CARES Act and future federal emergency education relief funds wisely, so that students are better served now and during future school shutdowns.

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