Senate releases new pandemic response bill with K-12 funding

U.S. Senate Republicans released their latest response to the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday. The bill has an overall price tag of $1 trillion and contains K-12 education funding of about $70 billion, with two-thirds of that only available to school districts that have in-person reopening plans approved by their state’s Governor. The measure must now be reconciled with the $3 trillion HEROES Act passed earlier this summer by the U.S. House, which reflects Democratic Party priorities for pandemic response. KASB is monitoring the Congressional negotiations and will continue to report on what is expected to be a very fluid process.  

Allocation of funds based on reopening plans 

The Senate HEALS (Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools) Act appropriates $69.2 billion for K-12 schools, based on a state’s proportion of Title I students. A third of that money would be required to be released to local school districts within two weeks of being allocated to the state. The remaining two-thirds of the funds would be released only after a school district submitted its reopening plan to its Governor, who would be required to approve the plan. The House HEROES Act has $58 billion for K-12 not determined by reopening plans. 

KASB, the State Board of Education and other advocacy groups have requested Congress provide at least $175 billion in stimulus funding for K-12 public schools.  

Under the HEALS Act, school districts that plan to provide in-person instruction for at least half of their students and in which students will physically attend school at least half of the school week would have their plans automatically approved by their Governor. If a district plans for remote learning only, it would not receive any of the two-thirds funding set aside by the HEALS Act. This provision reflects statements by President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos encouraging schools to open in person this fall.  

In Kansas, the State Board of Education has constitutional authority over public schools and their reopening plans; other states have various K-12 governance models.  

Education Stabilization Fund 

The HEALS Act also contains a $2 billion Education Stabilization Fund for governors to distribute in their states. A state would receive 60 percent of this funding based on its population aged 5-24 and 40 percent based on its Title I-eligible population. Allowable uses would be similar to those in the CARES Act passed in March. Governors could also use the funding to provide emergency support to higher education institutions in their states. 

States would be required to maintain their education funding at 2019 levels to receive Education Stabilization Fund grants. 

Homework Gap 

The HEALS Act contains no funding to help close the “homework gap,” which is the term used to describe inequitable student access to broadband internet service and compatible devices. The House HEROES Act has $1.5 billion for the homework gap. 

KASB supports Congressional efforts to close the homework gap by allocating $4 billion to the E-Rate program. Read more here. 

Liability Protection for School Districts 

The HEALS Act creates a federal cause of action for coronavirus exposure claims against schools. This cause of action is the exclusive remedy for all claims against a defendant for personal injury caused by an actual, alleged, feared or potential exposure to coronavirus.  

The House HEROES Act does not contain liability protections; Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been sharply critical of this provision of the Senate bill. 

Private Schools/”Education Freedom Scholarships” 

The HEALS Act authorizes a one-time emergency appropriation for scholarship-granting organizations in each state to provide families with “direct educational assistance, including private school tuition and home-schooling expenses.” The bill does not include an actual funding level for those scholarships, however; this provision is likely a messaging piece and KASB will continue to monitor this item. KASB opposes vouchers, tuition tax credits and other mechanisms that divert public funds to private elementary or secondary schools which are not subject to the same legal requirements as public-school districts. 

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