A Republican Senate appropriations bill unveiled this week — dubbed the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act — would provide $70 billion for schools as part of the latest COVID-19 relief package. But nearly two-thirds of that money is tied to schools reopening for in-person instruction.
While the conditional rules for the funding are not likely to be included in the final package, the move is drawing frustration from educators, many of whom prefer to delay the start of school until conditions allow for safe reopening, as well as policy experts, who think the strategy is a nod to President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
In recent weeks, both Trump and DeVos threatened to withhold funding from districts if school buildings stay closed. While neither have the power to do so, some lawmakers at the federal and state level who do have authority to choose how funding is distributed have tried to adopt a similar strategy. Texas, Florida, Arizona and Indiana are among states that plan to or have proposed tying funding to reopening to some extent.
Federal, state leaders push to reopen
In announcing the federal relief package, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said the funding would amount to about $1,200 per student for public and private K-12 schools. "Every school should get a third of that even if they are opening virtually," he said, "and the rest of that money should go to schools that are making an effort to open as much as possible with students physically present."
But according to Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for advocacy and policy at AASA, The School Superintendents Association, conditional funding creates "a national school board."
"It's rife with the assumption that the federal government somehow has the ability to gauge across 14,000 school districts in this nation that they can all reasonably, safely and responsibly open," she said.
On a state level, Texas, which is home to over 1,000 districts, seems to be adopting a similar strategy. Most recent guidance from the Texas Education Agency suggests a superintendent must offer a semester-long, in-person option for parents after a maximum of eight weeks of virtual learning. At that point, schools would have to forego funding if they remain closed.
Schools would also lose out on dollars if they offer hybrid options for elementary and middle schools, making full-time, in-person learning mandatory for students who want to return to classrooms.
While temporary relief came when the state gave local health departments the power to close down campuses, in which case schools would continue to receive funding, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton clarified Tuesday that blanket school building closures for preventative purposes were not lawful.
Funding options making things harder
With guidance evolving "all of a sudden" and funding options changing based on those guidelines, Texas superintendents have had "a lot of confusion, a lot of frustration," said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.
"I think it’s just the unknown that there’s some cliff that you’re marching toward," said Brown about reopening dates. "It just makes everybody on pins and needles because we want to make sure that we are fully funding our schools this year."
Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, thinks the federal incentive to reopen through funding mechanisms "is not working." A third of school districts, he said, have already announced they will reopen virtually, and starving those districts of funding could mean going virtual for the entire school year.
"A superintendent is not going to be inclined to open because they’re not going to receive the funding," Domenech added. "Primarily they’re not going to reopen because they don’t have the funding."
Earl Franks, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said in a statement the "'carrot' approach that incentivizes schools to disregard public health experts’ recommendations" ties the hands of district leaders and is "counterproductive."
Domenech also suggested the federal push has inspired teachers to become more vocal in expressing their dissent for reopening against health and safety guidelines, with the American Federation of Teachers recently announcing it would support local strikes and legal action against school districts that reopen too soon.
On the other hand, districts that are gearing up to reopen, such as remote districts with low coronavirus case numbers in the local community, remain largely unaffected by these debates.
And some, including Alexander, argue schools willing to open for in-person instruction would need more funds than those that remain virtual for things like cleaning supplies and PPE.
In a statement provided in response to an inquiry about the threat of strikes, the U.S. Department of Education also remarked on conditional funding: "If they accept that money, they should use it to open and operate schools safely. If they refuse, that money should go to families for educational expenses."
Conditional funding likely to be challenged
In Texas, Brown said districts will likely sue if the state does withhold funding after eight weeks of virtual learning. And on the federal level, Ellerson Ng anticipates the conditional funding mechanism in the Republicans' plan to be bargained out by Democrats.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), a ranking member of the Senate's HELP committee, is likely to challenge the stipulation. Prior to the package reveal, Murray said in response to Trump's threat to withhold funding that "the thought of using students’ safety as a bargaining chip is truly appalling." In response to the recent Republican package, she said in a statement that the legislation "can’t credibly be considered a starting point for negotiations."
Domenech said he hopes Congress resolves the point of disagreement sooner rather than later, but doesn't expect any resolution until late August.
"The longer this thing goes on, the more difficult it will be for districts to reopen in person," he said. "And if there’s no action, you’re going to see a significant number of districts open virtually."
AASA, along with 15 other national education organizations, sent a letter to Congress Thursday strongly opposing the tying of funds to the physical reopening of school buildings, saying the funding mechanism would "unnecessarily complicate and limit the ability of school districts to safely open schools consistent with local conditions and needs."