With Biden's expected signature, federal bill will bring Kansas K-12 relief to over $1 billion
Following the U.S. House of Representatives' vote to approve a $1.9 trillion stimulus package on Wednesday, Kansas' public schools are set to receive another $600 million to address the lingering effects of COVID-19 on school openings and any potential learning loss.
The bill, which President Joe Biden is expected to sign later this week, includes about $130 billion for the nation's K-12 system as part of the third round of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund.
State education commissioner Randy Watson on Tuesday told the Kansas State Board of Education that the state's public schools will likely receive just under $600 million from ESSER III, to again be apportioned to districts based on the Title I formula, which measures the number of low-income students in a school community.
Those funds will add onto $455 million in existing funding for Kansas' public schools, resulting in three separate, but cumulative, pots of over $1 billion in relief for Kansas’ K-12 public schools.
Ninety percent of those funds must go directly to funding local school and district programs, with the legislation reserving the remaining funds for targeted, statewide programs and grant administration.
Kansas' private schools will receive $27 million in an identical amount from the first round of the separate Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools fund from December’s federal bill.
Funding with restrictions
School districts will have until fall 2023 to utilize the newest round of funding. However, the previous two rounds of funding carry different stipulations and earlier deadlines for how and when districts can spend those funds.
Additionally, those funds won’t go directly to schools, and instead, individual districts will have to apply for each new expense they identify as being related to the pandemic, since the federal government doesn't like leaving state and local entities with the ability to profit from “investing” any of their balance, Watson said.
No funds from ESSER II have even gone out to districts yet, although Watson estimated districts may start receiving that relief in the upcoming weeks. Funding from ESSER III likely won’t be processed until later in the spring or early summer, Watson said.
Watson has emphasized that all of the federal relief funding for education isn't necessarily a stimulus, as other portions of the bill might be considered, but rather a targeted effort at helping schools recover from the pandemic.
Schools are then somewhat narrowly restricted in how they can use the funds, with the intent that districts use the funding to safely reopen school, measure and address significant learning loss, and take any other actions to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on families.
But that same definition would preclude districts from using relief funds to replenish student activity fee accounts, purchase vans or buses to relieve crowded transportation routes, or even remove asbestos to improve schools’ air quality, according to the state department’s interpretation of the federal bills.
Private schools facing 'unfair' process because of federal regulations
While public schools will be able to “draw down” the balance of their funding allocated by the Title I formula on an as-needed basis, private schools, accredited and nonaccredited, could essentially have to compete for their portions of the relief funding, since the bill doesn't include a specific formula for allocating those funds.
Those private schools are also under pressure to apply for their funding — which would be from an approximately similar $27 million pot of additional funding under the new bill, Watson estimated — since they would have tight 30-day windows in which to submit their applications, and federal law doesn't allow for them to request funding on an as-needed basis like their public counterparts.
And even with their applications, funds couldn't go directly to private schools. Instead, federal law stipulates that the private schools apply for and receive services from public entities. In Kansas’ case, the state’s educational service centers, or cooperatives around the state offering specialized services, and larger school districts will likely contract with those private schools to provide services and any necessary items.
State education department officials estimated anywhere between 75 and 150 private schools will ultimately apply for funding, and the state education department will try to give priority to private schools with higher rates of poverty in allocating the EANS funding, Watson said.
Watson acknowledged that process may not be "fair" to private schools. But he emphasized that the funding allocation process is dictated by federal law, and state legislators and education department officials haven't had a hand in crafting the processes.
To help public and private schools navigate the application process and how the relief funding can be used, Watson put together an ad hoc task force — made up of state and local administrators, teachers, board members and private school personnel — to oversee plans for relief fund distribution.
That task force, which is meeting weekly, and its guidance will be especially vital, Watson said, given the longer timelines for some of the COVID-19 relief funding and the fact some districts will experience more frequent administrative turnover.
If federal audits in the upcoming years find any misuse, even if inadvertent, of the relief funds, districts would likely be forced to pay those funds back to the federal government.