How the New Federal Emergency Aid Could Help Ed Tech and Connectivity

Staff Writer

In addition to providing over $120 billion in direct aid for K-12 schools and students, a massive COVID-19 relief package moving through the final stages of congressional approval would also provide $7 billion to help students access broadband and devices at home.

That money could help educational companies deliver products in remote and hybrid learning environments, at a time when many districts are still struggling to provide technology and connectivity to students, much less make sure they’re engaged in learning.

The Federal Communications Commission will be responsible for allocating the money focused on tech connectivity, said Reg Leichty, founding partner of the education consulting group Foresight Law+Policy, during a virtual conference last week hosted by the Consortium for School Networking, a professional association for school district technology leaders.

“If this funding is provided to the FCC, of course, the agency will need some time to set up a process to distribute the funding,” Leichty said. “But we do hope, based on some work that they’ve done since January to lay the groundwork for this money, that the agency will be able to move pretty quickly.”

Education advocates are hopeful that the commission will set up a process for distributing the funds starting in April or May, assuming the legislation is signed into law soon, he said.

As of Wednesday morning, the bill had cleared the Senate and was awaiting a final vote by the House. If the stimulus legislation passes, the bill would then go to President Joe Biden for signature.

A recent estimate by EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based research nonprofit that attempts to strengthen students’ internet connectivity away from school, found that up to 15 million students in the U.S. weren’t connected at home at the start of the pandemic.

The $7 billion included in the stimulus currently being considered would follow $3 billion provided in an earlier federal relief package devoted to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. That program connects low-income families to broadband and devices.

Big Investments in Devices

That program provides a subsidy of up to $50 per month for qualified low-income families, and up to $75 per month for families who live on tribal property.

Separate from the $7 billion funding basket for home broadband and devices, the new stimulus legislation would direct $3 billion to be provided for special education grants, and $2.75 billion specifically to private schools. It would also channel $800 million to help identify homeless students and provide wraparound services to those students, as my Education Week colleague Andrew Ujifusa reported.

If the measure’s total of $120 billion in direct K-12 aid gets distributed to states, and ultimately to districts, the money could be used for several purchases related to ed tech, which would provide education companies with a reliable source of capital amid a time of economic uncertainty.

The $120 billion in direct aid would flow through the same account as K-12 funds provided through the March 2020-enacted CARES Act, the first federal stimulus bill passed after the COVID pandemic started last year.

Similar to previous stimulus legislation, allowable uses of the funding include school construction and renovation, assistance for students with special needs, funding for career and technical education programs, and ed tech, Leichty noted.

During the CoSN conference, Cindy Bingman, executive director of technology services for the Houston-area Aldine Independent School District, outlined how her district used funding from the CARES Act.

What ultimately resulted from that legislation was $279 million of new devices purchased for districts across Texas; 760,000 keyboarded e-learning devices purchased from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Lenovo at 20- to 40-percent discounts; and 481,000 hot spots purchased from various telecom providers, Bingman mentioned.

“What [schools] did initially, first, was negotiate with the vendors—with the hot spot providers, with the different device providers,” she said. “They negotiated with them for bulk pricing, and the state of Texas determined they would provide those as matching funds, so whatever a district ordered, they had to be able to match one-to-one. So, if you were spending a dollar, you got a dollar.”

Though assigning one device for every student had long been a “dream” for the district, CARES Act funding allowed Aldine ISD to meet that goal, Bingman said.

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