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Coronavirus emergency aid for K-12 schools coming soon

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has released the guidance and application information for the $3 billion in emergency education block grants governors can apply for.

The Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund from the CARES Act is intended to “enable governors to decide how best to meet the needs of students, schools (including charter schools and non-public schools), postsecondary institutions, and other education-related organizations” during the COVID-19 crisis so faculty can continue to teach and students can continue to learn. (This money is also separate from the $13.5 million the CARES Act set aside just for K-12 education.)

State allocations are based on each state’s student-aged population (individuals ages 5 to 24) and poverty levels (the relative number of children counted for Title I grants) and range from $4.5 million for Vermont to $355 million for California. Minnesota’s portion of the GEER Fund is $43,427,249.

Secretary DeVos’s letter to the governors stated that the emergency grants are “extraordinarily flexible,” and how the money is spent will not be micromanaged by the Department of Education. However, each governor is limited to one year to use the funds, and any funds not used must be returned to the Department for reallocation.

Little more than a governor’s signature is required on the grant application, with assurances from each applicant to later report on how the money is used. Specifically, the Department wants to know three things about the intended use of the funds:

  • Does the State intend to use any of the awarded funds to support remote learning for all students? How will the State assess this learning? How will the State ensure that remote learning serves all students, including students with disabilities, students from low-income families, charter school students, and non-public school students?

  • Does the State intend to use any of the awarded funds to support technological capacity and access—including hardware and software, connectivity, and instructional expertise—to support remote learning for all students?

  • Does the State intend to use any of the awarded funds to support remote learning by developing new informational and academic resources and expanding awareness of, and access to, best practices and innovations in remote learning and support for students, families, and educators?

As Governor Walz and his administration think through how to spend this extra money, the Center urges our state’s officials to focus on using it in a way that empowers and equips all students to continue learning—regardless of where the student goes to school. Because of the flexible nature of the emergency aid, there is an opportunity to focus on addressing the educational needs of students in ways the state has not previously been able to do so.

One idea to consider: emergency or temporary Education Savings Accounts (or a similar scholarship account) to assist families and students with at-home learning during extended school closures.

In Minnesota, 45 percent of 3rd graders are not proficient in reading. Reading literacy is crucial to help students succeed in subsequent grades. Several states are working on replicating Florida’s Reading Scholarship Account, which provides $500 in the form of an Education Savings Account to families with students in grades 3-5 who are reading below grade level. Minnesota could look into replicating this as well. Parents can use this scholarship on a variety of learning resources—from instructional materials and curriculum to tutoring services and specialized summer education programs.

An Education Savings Account could also be structured to help families of children with special needs so that they may continue receiving the therapy they need. The state could provide parents a portion of their child’s per pupil funding that could then be used to pay for an education-related service or product. Mississippi has a similar ESA currently in place.

Education Savings Accounts are restricted-use accounts (that can have multiple uses) that would provide Minnesota families the immediate financial support they need to help navigate their child’s learning and keep it on track during the coronavirus crisis.

The Center will continue following Minnesota’s application for the emergency funding and provide any updates on how it will be distributed, as those updates develop.

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