It was one of the first proposals by the new White House to tackle what President Joe Biden has said is a central goal of his administration: promoting racial equity through federal policy.
The idea: a competitive grant program for schools that would give the federal government a more central role in combating long-standing educational disparities that have been worsened by the pandemic.
But as Biden signed a coronavirus relief bill into law Thursday, his proposed “COVID-19 Educational Equity Gap Challenge Grant” was missing from the $130 billion allocated for schools – the result of pushback from advocates who warned it would have the opposite of its intended effect.
Biden’s push to reopen schools within 100 days – one of the most politically fraught early promises of his administration – stands as one of the first major tests of his promise to infuse the goal of equity into policymaking across the government.
The $2 billion competitive grant program – first unveiled during Biden’s campaign for the presidency – represented only a small portion of the proposed school spending that was generally greeted enthusiastically by experts concerned about disparities in education.
But the proposal would have given federal officials greater say in earmarking some of the new funding for innovative programs specifically designed to promote equity. It generated vigorous opposition, touching off long-standing concerns about federal control of local school policy.
Its demise reflects the complexities Biden faces as he attempts to expand the role of the federal government in helping communities achieve lofty goals on race, even while addressing multiple national crises.
With millions of children still out of classrooms – a reality that has been especially damaging for minority and impoverished students – the president is under pressure to quickly reopen the country’s schools and ensure that the most vulnerable communities are prioritized.
“The question that should be asked is: What is the impediment to opening schools for the benefit of kids, and how long are we going to wait to the detriment of the most fragile kids in America today – kids who are in poverty, children of color, children who are English-language learners, and children with a disability?” said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, who has argued schools need to reopen more quickly.
Carvalho, whose district is the largest in the country to have opened all its schools, said he is particularly attuned to the challenges and learning loss students have experienced during the pandemic and the disproportionate impact on underserved students. The district, where 93 percent of students are minorities and nearly three-quarters qualify for free or reduced price lunch, is in the early stages of assessing and addressing the kind of educational disparities that were exacerbated by the remote-learning experiment that lasted from last March through October, he said.
The Biden administration touted the proposed equity challenge grants in a Jan. 20 news release that described how Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” would help open schools in an equitable way. They were designed to encourage districts such as Miami-Dade to compete to come up with new ideas to combat those disparities, while giving the federal government a larger say in directing educational policy.
But senior administration officials now say they can achieve their goals without the grants. The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said other parts of the $130 billion schools package signed in the past week reflect Biden’s central focus on racial justice.
“We felt like the essence of what the president had proposed has been fully incorporated, frankly, and then some,” said one senior administration official involved in the process. Another official said there are other ways the federal government can help guide spending to address equity. The Education Department plans to release additional guidance soon to help schools decide how to spend new money.
“We think one of our biggest tools is the bully pulpit and being able to elevate research and best practices,” the official said.
Inequity is a defining feature of the nation’s school system, a fact that persists nearly six decades after the Supreme Court outlawed racially segregated schools. Predominantly White school districts got $23 billion more in funding than did predominantly non-White districts in 2016, even though they served roughly the same number of schoolchildren, according to EdBuild, an organization dedicated to studying school funding disparities that disbanded last year. Because schools are both locally funded and controlled, students in affluent communities learn in radically different conditions than students in poor ones.
These disparities touch nearly every aspect of education, from the condition of the buildings, to the number of computers and textbooks, to the amount of experience the teachers have. While students in the nation’s most affluent communities learn in state-of-the-art facilities with veteran teachers, students in the most underresourced schools may be learning in buildings riven with asbestos, from a substitute teacher who may not even have a teaching certificate.
Experts fear the pandemic has compounded those long-standing disparities. Students who are poor, minority or from rural areas have struggled the most with remote learning during the pandemic, according to researchers, school administration officials and Biden’s Education Department.
A McKinsey study cited by the White House found that learning loss among students of color has been “especially acute” and that Black and Hispanic students could be six months to a year behind academically by June, due to pandemic-related disruptions. By contrast, White students were expected to be four to eight months behind. Experts fear the impact could be lifelong for individual students.
“Even before this happened, there were many shocking and stark disparities that were happening,” said Titilayo Tinubu Ali, research and policy director for the Southern Education Foundation, which focuses on educational disparities among poor and minority students. “So even when students are back in school, if we don’t reopen safely with the resources needed to make sure that schools are able to deliver high-quality education, those inequities that we were seeing will continue to persist.”
Biden, who has praised minority voters for paving his path to the White House, has promised to use “an ambitious whole-of-government equity agenda” to combat such racial inequalities.
In a speech last month, he singled out education as among the institutions he intended to overhaul. “We’ll work to dismantle systemic racism across the board by advancing racial equity across the whole of government,” he said. The push to reopen schools has presented the Biden administration with a clear test of its ability to make good on that pledge.
Education advocates, who have cheered the passage of the bill, say it will assist in reopening schools, which will ultimately help reduce disparities.
The $130 billion is more than double what K-12 schools received in the December 2020 aid package, and will be distributed in part based on how many children in poverty school systems serve.
It also sets aside $7.2 billion to ensure students are connected to the internet, after the pandemic revealed that millions of children could not access virtual classrooms at home. And a fifth of the funding must be used to address the learning loss that has so acutely impacted children of color and children from low-income households.
The funding could be a “game-changer” for getting children back in classrooms, Carvalho said.
The package also includes so-called maintenance of equity language that blocks states from enacting budget cuts at high-poverty school districts. Ary Amerikaner, a vice president for the Education Trust, an advocacy group for disadvantaged students, called the provision “an important equity win.”
But much of the money will flow through the federal government’s standard funding formulas for local schools, similarly to how dollars were distributed through the relief package signed by President Donald Trump in December.
Charles Barone, who runs K-12 policy for the pro-charter school advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform, said the exclusion of the challenge grant program will constrain the federal government’s ability to implement new ideas to address the stubborn problem of inequity in schools.
“There’s no more important time than now to try to be creative to address learning loss in the covid context and maybe trying to change some things on a more long-term basis,” he said. “But it’s also never been more difficult to do that, given that everybody’s just trying to keep their head above water.”
The level of flexibility included in the new measure combined with the unprecedented hike in federal funding could lead to unintended consequences, said Barone, a former congressional aide. The money is likely to attract lobbyists and entrenched entities looking to collect as much funding as possible while doing little to change the status quo on education, he said.
“Absent pressure from above, people will tend to put the money through the same vendors and programs that they have on the books,” he said. “There needs to be some level of direction from the feds … or this money is going to be wasted.”
But other educational advocates, allies of Biden who agree with his focus on racial disparities, balked at the idea of having states or school districts compete for the funding, arguing such competitions put the schools that need the money most at a disadvantage.
“Competitive grants are inherently inequitable,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, director of advocacy and governance for AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “It precludes certain schools who would otherwise be competitive from even competing because they just don’t have the capacity.”
Penny Schwinn, the education commissioner in Tennessee, said many rural school systems that need the funding would not have the staff or expertise to compete for a competitive grant. In other words, the districts that need the resources most might be the least capable of getting them.
“It pulls attention away from the business of teaching and learning because they’re going after additional funding,” Schwinn said.
While there were few public details about how the initiative would have worked, it bore the imprint of the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competitive grant program – which groups like the National Education Association have criticized for making states compete for funding based on criteria and standards directed by the federal government.
The $4.4 billion program, signed into law as part of President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic recovery package, played a major role in shaping education policy over the past decade. Its competitive structure led states across the country to rush to implement federally endorsed policies such as teacher evaluations, high-stakes standardized testing and common standards in math and language arts.
Education advocates said the model was overly prescriptive, pushing some states to make changes that were ultimately ineffective, and to make promises that were unrealistic. Critics said it also did not address the core drivers of academic failures, like poverty. Some of its aims, such as evaluating teachers based on the test scores of their students, faced stiff opposition from teachers unions.
Advocates quietly lobbied against Biden’s challenge-grant idea, ensuring it was removed from the relief bill last month as it was negotiated in the House Education and Labor Committee, according to education advocates and congressional aides, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the downfall of a White House policy.
The Biden’s administration has meanwhile come under sharp criticism for garbled messaging and a lack of clear and consistent scientific guidance for educators looking to reopen schools.
Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have added to the confusion by recommending that communities with a high level of virus transmission – currently most of the country and especially urban areas – operate schools remotely or part time.
The Biden administration has tried to hone its messaging in recent days, with the president committing to vaccinate all teachers over the next month and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona offering fresh guidance. Still, Republicans have seized on the initial lack of clarity, arguing the lack of urgency to reopen schools is especially harmful to minority and underserved students.
“We are facing an absolute crisis with our schools,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said March 6 before voting against the $1.9 trillion relief package. “Millions of school kids are falling behind, and it’s falling disproportionately on low-income kids, on African American kids, on Hispanic kids.”
Amid the political turbulence, Biden’s administration opted against making a hard sell for its equity grant program after it received a cold reception from advocacy groups normally aligned with Democrats on education, according to Ellerson Ng, whose group has been in touch with the administration on education policy.
“They were looking at fights that they didn’t want to have, and determined it’s not worth it,” she said.
Instead, the package leaves states and school districts with vast flexibility to determine how to spend the $130 billion. Even the 20 percent set aside for addressing learning loss does not strictly define what that entails. Ellerson Ng said she could make a case that hiring additional janitors or purchasing personal protective equipment – both necessary for classrooms to reopen – could qualify as spending that addresses learning loss.
With the reduced federal role in the distribution of new funding, the Biden administration may ultimately have to depend on school districts such as Miami-Dade to take up the mantle of reducing disparities.
Carvalho said his district has no choice but to focus on equity issues, given its socioeconomic makeup. School administrators in Miami-Dade have dispatched social workers to low-income neighborhoods to connect with about 10,300 students who had “fallen through the cracks” academically during remote learning. Other school workers traveled to the county’s migrant fields to find “lost” students who had simply stopped showing up for virtual class, he said.
The district is also planning to use the federal funds from the relief package to help run a comprehensive summer school program with arts, music, sports and cultural events.
“We do all this obviously through the lens of equity,” Carvalho said.
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The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker contributed to this report.