CARES Act will give $13.5 billion in aid to K-12 schools: How should states spend it?

Today Congress has sent a coronavirus stimulus package – the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act – to the desk of President Donald Trump for his signature which includes $13.5 billion in aid for K-12 schools around the nation.

The CARES Act does more than just provide aid for the K-12 education system. It also gives Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education, additional waiver power to grant states and schools flexibility under extant federal K-12 law, the Every Students Succeeds Act. This means that many education norms, practices and accountability measures can and are already being shifted, postponed or cancelled altogether. For example, the Department of Education has communicated to states that they may submit waivers to cancel state standardized tests, and a growing number of states are taking them up on that offer.

As we stated last week, “Statewide assessment results matter because they provide parents with important performance scores that help them evaluate student and school performance and provide education policymakers with data that better informs future decisions and policies that can support low-performing students or often neglected groups, such as English Learners.”

COVID-19 has altered our normalcy. Nonetheless, our hope is that state and district educational leaders will act in the best interest of our community and find ways to ensure that no student or groups of students get overlooked or goes without an honest look into his or her academic progress this year. 

Regarding the $13.5 billion in additional aid for K-12 schools, there are three ways in which the FE Coalition hopes funds are used. 

First, aid should serve historically disadvantaged students.

Many public-school students come from lower-income families whose parents may have been let go from jobs or serve in sectors hit hardest by the virus. Millions of students rely on school lunches and students with disabilities and English learners obtain numerous academic and health supports through their schools. While we know that states are usually granted much more flexibility in their use of aid, we also know that receiving additional funds should require an adequate level of reporting that will help ensure that resources reach those who need them most. 

Second, aid should seek to make online instruction available when possible and to as many students as possible. 

There are some districts who have provided online instruction during their school closure, and then there are some who have not. Living and serving in lower SES communities, I have witnessed students and parents who would spend their afternoons and evenings at McDonald’s or a nearby coffee shop in order to have internet access. With limited internet and computer access it is not always practicable to make online learning the nexus of K-12 education, but efforts should be made to provide it to students when possible. For those who have internet access at home, the FE Coalition has created a landing page with a list of high quality home-learning resources. Even with limited internet access and in-person teacher instruction, students can still improve their reading, writing, and math skills and expand their minds at home. 

Lastly, aid should extend learning when school resumes. 

We reported late last year on the persistent achievement gaps between historically high-achieving and low-achieving groups. I wrote, “It is not that our nation does not have or has not had groups of k-12 students who are succeeding academically . . . it is that the high-achieving groups are made up of students . . . that have historically been high-achieving, and low-achieving groups are made up of students . . . that have historically been low-achieving. The division continues to be highly predicated on a family’s socioeconomic status or zip code.”

We should be concerned about how current school closures could significantly worsen the achievement gaps and stymie progresses made by students. This year, the Hispanic community, pastores y padres, should consider strongly advocating for and supporting extended learning opportunities such as summer school for Title I students, English Learners, and students with disabilities so that they are academically prepared to enter into the next grade-level in the coming academic year. 

We are living in times that call for great leadership and hope. My hope is in God and I know that he is in control. I pray and trust that he will inspire great wisdom in us and in our leaders so that we can navigate this COVID-19 season and come out on the other end not only stronger in our faith in Jesus Christ but also stronger and better equipped in the ministry of advancing Hispanic student achievement. 

Forward and higher in Christ, 

Rev. Girien R. Salazar
Executive Director, FE Coalition