The $2 trillion stimulus package signed into law by President Trump is unlikely to significantly bolster ed-tech access and use, because of the long list of needs the money is expected to cover for districts across the country, a pair of advocates predict.
Some education groups were disappointed that the legislation failed to include dedicated funding to support remote learning for K-12 students, either through expanding the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program or some other means.
The original House version of the legislation channeled $2 billion to the federal E-rate program for improved connectivity and devices, specifically for students who don’t have adequate resources for remote learning.
Twenty education associations on March 23 wrote a letter to House leaders endorsing the $2 billion proposal.
But while remote connectivity is an allowable use for the $13.5 billion K-12 relief fund included in the final legislation, the law signed by Trump provides less assurance than the dedicated House proposal that would have specifically directed funds at products geared toward distance learning, said Reg Leichty, a founding partner of Foresight Law+Policy, an education consultancy.
“In an environment where state and local revenues are in freefall, that $13 billion will not go as far as one would hope,” said Leichty, who represents education companies on Capitol Hill.
“It’s most likely not going to be enough money to address the homework gap at scale,” he added, referring to the divide that separates affluent and poor families’ access to fast and reliable internet access at home.
Jon Bernstein, an educational consultant and founder of the government relations and consulting firm Bernstein Strategy Group, also said the federal law will fall short of covering many ed-tech needs.
He noted that the $13.5 billion earmarked for K-12 is less than the total amount devoted to Title I (federal funding allotted to schools that serve low-income students) each year. States and localities are already seeing massive declines in tax revenues as the result of business shutdowns, which will flow downstream to states’ ability to support K-12 and higher education.
“Because it is money that’s essentially completely flexible, it’s going to go for any number of different activities and backfills that are necessary from the state or district perspectives,” Bernstein said. “No one single issue is going to be addressed.”
In circumstances where state and local tax revenues fall precipitously, districts will focus even more heavily on funding general operations, Leichty predicted.
The funds could go toward any number of priorities, including protective gear for staff who hand out school lunches, printed academic resources and computers, as well as other emergency supplies, said Bernstein.
“I don’t think there’s anything in the law that indicates the [U.S. Department of Education] has any special requirement to track how these dollars are being used,” Bernstein said.
One silver lining for ed-tech companies is that the $13.5 billion provides a pathway to “marry the best of private industry thinking with this need that’s incredible and unprecedented,” he said.
There’s still a big need to strengthen connectivity for students who don’t have a decent broadband connection, and the law falls short in that area, said Leichty.
A number of ed-tech advocacy organizations will continue to push for changes that allow an expansion of E-rate to support remote learning, either through congressional legislation or FCC rulemaking, said Leichty and Bernstein, who represent some of those organizations.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has opted to seek legislation rather than undergo a rulemaking, interpreting the federal Communications Act as barring the agency from using E-rate funding for students’ home use of wireless devices and services.
But education groups and Democratic senators have said Pai can use emergency powers to change FCC rules to give the E-rate wider applicability.
Bernstein said education advocates are already working with Congress on including dedicated funding for student connectivity in a “Phase Four” coronavirus spending bill.