Ed Tech, Title I Get a Boost in New COVID Stimulus Plan Approved by Lawmakers

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Congress has approved a COVID-19 stimulus package that would provide K-12 schools with $57 billion in emergency aid, a measure that President Donald Trump signed into law on Sunday.

The funds in package can be used for school construction and renovation, assistance for students with special needs and funding for career and technical education programs, and education technology, among other priorities.

The measure includes $17.2 billion in new money for Title I and Title II, major federal programs that provide a wide array of support support for impoverished students and professional development in school districts.

[UPDATE (Dec. 28): In the days after Republicans and Democrats reached an agreement on the stimulus package, Trump initially stunned lawmakers by voicing objections to the deal and announcing via Twitter that he was considering vetoing it.

Trump branded the legislation a “disgrace,” and called for increasing the the amount of direct stimulus payments in the legislation from $600 to $2,000 per individual. That idea had drawn objections from many in the GOP.

But on Sunday, Trump abruptly reversed course and signed the legislation.]

Jon Bernstein, founder of the government relations and consulting firm Bernstein Strategy Group, noted that while ed tech is an allowable use of funding, it’s unclear how much districts will spend on ed tech, because it’s not known how much federal emergency aid they have devoted so far to ed tech and personal devices.

Bernstein was disappointed that the new aid package does not include new money to expand the federal E-rate program, and specifically deal with the “homework gap” — meaning efforts to improve students’ at-home internet connectivity.

“With so many competing priorities — buying PPE, cleaning schools — I am concerned that not all of them will be able to make use of these new dollars for ‘homework gap’ purposes,” Bernstein said in an email.

Yet Reg Leichty, a lobbyist who advises companies, school systems, and others, said districts will have the option of addressing “really specific local needs” with the $57 billion federal injection because Congress allowed for flexible spending.

There are guideposts on how that money can be spent, he said, but the stimulus bill gives district leaders wide latitude. That includes permitting investments in an array of ed-tech tools and “related activities,” such as broadband connections, hardware and software for digital learning or for more professional development to make the best use of an array of new technology driving learning plans in the COVID-era.

“You can help a family with a device, help them pay for a monthly Internet connection and even invest in cybersecurity,” said Leichty, a founding partner of the education consulting group Foresight Law+Policy.

The legislation doesn’t include any money for E-Rate, a federal program overseen by the Federal Communications Commission that provides discounts for internet connectivity services and equipment to be used in schools and libraries.

E-rate provides $4 billion annually for internet services.

Bernstein and Consortium for School Networking CEO Keith Krueger were among those in the education sector who expressed disappointment at the absence of E-Rate funds in the stimulus.

Broadband Funding

Since schools started closing in March, advocates have been calling for policymakers to authorize E-rate funds to support students who attend school remotely.

“That would have been the best way to address this emergency situation and ensure that we have guardrails on the use of funds,” Krueger said in a statement. “However, we are grateful that school districts will be able to use their general emergency funding to help unconnected students join their peers online during this particularly difficult time.”

The bill would provide $3.2 billion for an emergency broadband connectivity fund. Leichty said that money is likely to help students from low-income families connect to high-speed internet.

E-rate advocates are in conversations with the FCC about whether program funds could be repurposed for at-home learning when President-Elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20. When outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai departs upon the end of Trump’s term, the five-slot commission will have two Democrats and two Republicans.

One other potential major implication of the new stimulus for districts, Leichty said, is that Congress also approved in its new package a one-year extension for states to spend existing money from the CARES Act passed earlier this year. Some of the general allotments from the CARES Act to states were spent on education, he said.

Originally, that money had to be spent by the end of 2020 or returned. Now, state will have a new 12-month shot clock to figure out what to do with those unspent funds, and “some governors could choose to use portions of that for educational purposes.” he said.

While Biden has said he would like another stimulus package, it’s unclear how quickly that would move if Republicans maintain control of the Senate.

The runoff election for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats, held Jan. 5, will decide whether Democrats control the chamber.

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