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CARES Act Gives State Education Funding, Flexibility in Wake of COVID-19

By Austin Reid  |  April 1, 2020

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, provides funding and flexibilities for states to respond to the COVID-19 emergency in K-12 schools.

Funding for States and School Districts

The bill includes an Education Stabilization Fund, which provides $13.5 billion in K-12 formula grants to states. This grant is distributed to states based on their share of ESEA Title I-A funds. State education agencies will then distribute at least 90% of funds to school districts and public charter schools based on their share of Title I-A funds. State agencies may choose to use a portion or all of the remaining K-12 funds to respond to emergency needs as determined by the state agency.

Funds to local districts can be used for coronavirus-response activities, such as planning for and coordinating during long-term school closures, purchasing educational technology to support online learning for all students, and additional activities authorized by federal elementary and secondary education laws.

Each state will receive a share of the $3 billion Governor’s Education Relief Fund, which governors can use at their discretion to provide emergency support grants to K-12 schools, colleges and universities and child care/early education providers.

The Congressional Research Service has provided initial estimates for the share of funds states could anticipate receiving.

States must meet a couple notable requirements when accepting these funds. First, states must maintain support for elementary and secondary education and higher education (funding to institutions and need-based financial aid) in fiscal years 2020 and 2021 equal to their average support for the preceding three years. The secretary of education is given authority to waive this maintenance of effort provision if states have “experienced a precipitous decline in financial resources.”

Additionally, any entity that receives funds from the education stabilization fund must continue to pay its employees and contractors to the extent practicable during the period of any disruptions or closures related to coronavirus.

Flexibilities for States and Schools Districts

The CARES Act provides additional flexibilities for states and local education agencies to respond to the COVID-19 emergency.

The bill grants authority to the secretary of education to waive state assessment and accountability provisions of ESEA. As of April 1, nearly every state has received a waiver on state assessments for the 2019-2020 school year.

States may request a waiver that relieves them of the requirement to identify new schools for comprehensive and targeted improvement, so long as any school with a school improvement designation for the 2019-2020 school year maintains that designation for 2020-2021. States can also receive a waiver form including certain data points on their state school report cards. The full list of provisions that can be waived is available on this template from the Department of Education.

The CARES Act does not allow for waivers from federal civil rights laws, such as IDEA. However, it does require the secretary of education to make a report to Congress within 30 days on any recommendations for waivers from IDEA provisions that Congress should consider.

Local districts also receive additional flexibility on certain ESEA provisions. The bill allows districts to request waivers to carry over more than 15% of their Title I allotment beyond the current fiscal year and to allow any school receiving Title I funds to operate under a schoolwide program.

Under the schoolwide approach, Title I dollars can be consolidated with state and local dollars to upgrade a school’s entire education program. The CARES Act also authorizes waivers that allow local districts increased flexibility on the use of Title IV-A funds, including lifting the limit that no more than 15% of Title IV-A funds can be used to purchase technology infrastructure.

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