Written by Cynthia Howell
Published by Arkansas Democrat Gazette
Arkansas’ public elementary and secondary school system is expected to receive nearly $128.8 million of the more than $13.2 billion in federal aid provided for education in the recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
U.S Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Thursday that the money is now available to the states and their school systems — including public charter schools — to support learning for kindergarten through 12th-graders whose educations have been disrupted by the coronavirus that causes the contagious and potentially fatal covid-19 infection.
Arkansas schools have been closed to in-person instruction of more than 470,000 students since mid-March to slow the spread of infection.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson closed all school buildings, effective March 17. He directed that students do schoolwork at home in consultation with their teachers, using paper, television and online lessons, and email and telephone communications. Initially, the buildings were to reopen March 30 and then April 20 but are now closed for the remainder of this school year.
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Arkansas is to receive $128,758,638, of which nearly $115.9 million at a minimum will go to the districts. The remaining money money is reserved for use by the state agency.
Education leaders nationwide will have the flexibility to use the earmarked money, called the Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief Fund, for immediate needs, such as tools and resources for distance education, ensuring student health and safety and developing and implementing plans for the next school year, according to U.S. Department of Education information released Thursday.
An immediate response from Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key and his staff was not available Thursday afternoon.
Key had told the state Board of Education earlier this month that the federal money would be forthcoming with specific guidelines for its use.
He said he anticipated that the federal money could be used for any expenses that districts incur related to the health emergency, including the purchase and distribution of laptops and tablets to students and teachers, and the distribution of grab-and-go school meals.
“Summer school is one of the issues we are looking at with the federal dollars,” Key also told the Education Board. “Is it something the federal dollars could be used for — summer opportunities? Until we get the federal guidance, it’s difficult to make any plans.”
DeVos said the federal funding will have “very few bureaucratic strings attached.” She urged that states and school districts focus on investing in technology, distance-learning resources, training and long-term planning.
“This national emergency continues to shine a light on the need for all schools to be more agile,” DeVos said in announcing the availability of the money. “Now is the time to truly rethink education and to get creative about how we meet each student’s unique needs.”
State education agencies have until July 1 to apply for their share of the money and can do that by submitting what the federal agency called a simple certification and agreement form. The intent by the federal agency is to process the forms within three business days of their receipt.
Some conditions apply for the funding.
State education agencies must distribute 90% of the money to school districts and charter schools in proportions that mirror the distribution of Title I Part A money each school system received in 2019. The amount of federal Title I money a school district and school receive is based at in part on the percentage of students at a school who come from low-income families.
Up to 10% of the money to the state may be kept by the state agency to use to address needs related to the coronavirus.
After one year, state education departments must return any funds that have not been awarded, and the U.S. education secretary will reallocate the money to the states.
Arkansas U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton — along with U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill, Steve Womack and Bruce Westerman — applauded the U.S. Department of Education for awarding emergency relief funds to support continued learning for Arkansas students.
“The closure of all public schools in Arkansas for the remainder of the school year is one of the biggest disruptions to everyday life the coronavirus crisis has brought upon families in our state,” the Arkansas lawmakers said in a joint news release. “This funding … will help the state overcome some of the challenges our educators, students and parents are facing as a result.”