A Gloomy Back to School
By Jon Bernstein, President, Bernstein Strategy Group
In normal times, most educators, parents and students greeted the return to school with joy and excitement. But in this COVID year, with schools still trying to figure out how to reopen after last spring’s shutdown, anxiety seems to be the most prevalent emotion. Adding to this angst is the fact that the Trump Administration has ramped up the pressure on states and school districts by insisting that schools re-open physically for in-person learning this fall. That stance has been one of the factors that has stymied negotiations between the Administration and Congressional Democrats on the next COVID-19 relief package which was supposed to include billions more for K-12 education. This negotiation breakdown is a particular problem for K-12 schools that are counting on additional emergency aid to finance the rapidly growing costs of providing an education to all students – whether in-person, remotely or somewhere in-between – during this pandemic. What happened and where do we go from here?
The federal government’s initial response to the pandemic was uncharacteristically swift last spring. A little more than two weeks after nearly all K-12 schools closed down in mid-March, Congress passed and the President signed the CARES Act, which provided K-12 schools with $13.5 billion in flexible funds to address everything from cleaning schools to professional development to purchasing educational technology. It also included an additional $3 billion for state governors to spend on emergency educational relief as they saw fit. When the President signed CARES, everyone thought that this was a temporary stopgap measure to help schools get through the rest of the 2019-20 school year, that more funding would be needed for the 2020-21 school year and that more would be coming. But, nearly six months later, more funding has not arrived.
Following the CARES Act, Congress did not shift into idle entirely. In May, the House of Representatives passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act, which contained: $58 billion in more general school aid for COVID-19 relief; another $4 billion for governors to use for education support; and $1.5 billion for an emergency connectivity fund, delivered through the existing E-Rate program, that schools could use to provide computers, hotspots and Internet access service for students unable to connect to online education from their homes. To be clear, these proposed HEROES Act investments fell far short of what the education community sought; associations representing teachers, principals, school board members and superintendents sought $175 billion in additional general education COVID-19 relief and $4 billion to $5 billion for home Internet access support. Still, the HEROES Act represented a good start and all awaited the Senate’s counter-offer.
Two months passed and the Senate did nothing. Finally, in late July, with many school districts beginning to reopen and most others finalizing their reopening plans, Senate Republicans made a move. They unveiled their version of the next COVID-19 relief bill – called the HEALS Act – which would provide approximately $2 trillion less than the HEROES Act. While HEALS proposed to provide more money for K-12 than did HEROES – $69.7 billion to $58 billion, those funds would come with strings attached: 10% of the overall pot would go directly to private schools; and two-thirds of all K-12 funds would go only to those school districts providing “in-person instruction for at least 50 percent of its students where the students physically attend school no less than 50 percent of each school-week.” Further, HEALS provided no money for home connectivity, ignoring the facts that most school district reopening plans called for students to learn remotely at least some days each week and that two recent studies found that nearly 30% of all students lacked adequate home connectivity, with rural, Black and Latinx students particularly hard-hit by this so-called “homework gap.”
With HEALS on the table, negotiations at last began in August between the Administration, led by Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and Congressional Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was notably and apparently deliberately absent. But the talks went nowhere as both sides remained at least $1 trillion dollars apart. With no progress apparent and the Presidential conventions impending, negotiations ceased and Congress left town. Now, we are in September and it is still not clear when or if negotiations will resume.
What is clear, though, is that schools could not and did not wait for the federal government and that the school year has begun before Congress and the Administration cut any kind of a deal on the next COVID-19 relief bill. It is also abundantly clear that this school year has begun without the funds needed to deliver not only a world-class education, as so many districts strive for, but an education that is safe and appropriate in our COVID-19 circumstances.
There is no question that this was going to be the hardest start to school of any in recent memory. But no one expected that the Administration would add to this burden by trying to force schools to reopen physically and by both Congress and the Administration failing to provide schools the support that is so clearly warranted and desperately needed.
The president and founder of Bernstein Strategy Group, Jon has been working on education, education technology and telecommunications issues since 1995. Currently, he serves as the Co-chair of the Education & Libraries Networks Coalition (EdLiNC), Co-chair of the Homework Gap Big Tent Coalition, and Executive Director of the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training (NCTET). Prior to launching the Bernstein Strategy Group in 2005, Jon was a Vice President at Leslie Harris & Associates, an Attorney Advisor with the Federal Communications Commission and a Lobbyist and Interim Manager of the Federal Relations Division of the National Education Association. He also worked for The Lightspan Partnership and as a Legislative Fellow for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. Jon received his B.A. from Colgate University and his J.D. from Northwestern University School of Law.