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The Latest Stimulus Package Includes $130 Billion For K-12 Education

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MIGUEL CARDONA: I just know that school reopening is really about creating those opportunities for our students. Doing it now, doing it in a safe way, we can do it. The American Rescue Plan is providing the resources needed.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That is Education Secretary Miguel Cardona at a press conference earlier today talking about the new funding for education in the COVID-19 relief law. There's nearly $130 billion for K-12 schools to spend. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been talking to experts and families about what this could mean. And she joins us now.

Hey, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, all right. This sounds like a lot of money.

KAMENETZ: You know, education is always expensive, but this is a lot of money, Ailsa. This is an average of $2,500 for every school child in the country to be spent over the next 2 1/2 school years. And, you know, there's other stuff in the rescue package like money for states so that they don't have to cut their school funding and significant help for families, too, in this bill, which also means more kids coming into school with basic needs covered and ready to learn.

CHANG: OK. So what are the strings attached here?

KAMENETZ: Good question. So Biden has put a little bit of teeth into his call to reopen schools. When school districts get the money, the law says they have 30 days to publish a plan for, quote, "the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services."

CHANG: OK. So they need to be holding classes in person in order to get these funds in the first place?

KAMENETZ: Well, at least planning for some in-person. Although we should note that it's only about 1 in 5 students estimated who are still in 100% remote school districts at this point in the year.

CHANG: OK. So what are schools expected to do with all of this money?

KAMENETZ: A lot of it is pretty unrestricted, but 20% of the funds are earmarked for learning loss - to add back some of the time that's been missed with either the remote or the hybrid schedules that we've had - things like summer school, longer school days, even year-round school. And, you know, parents do seem to want something like this. NPR and Ipsos recently polled parents, and we found more than 4 out of 5 were in favor of some kind of special help for students coming back. America Velez (ph), a mother of five in St. Cloud, Fla., said, yeah, bring on the summer school, after-school programs.

AMERICA VELEZ: I mean, honestly, we can't move forward with kids if they don't have the skills they've missed, so something needs to be done.

CHANG: OK. So how else are schools supposed to use this money? What are they being told?

KAMENETZ: Well, so they can renovate buildings, like for better ventilation. They can buy computers for kids. They can buy masks and hand sanitizer. And by the way, there's a separate pool of money - billions of dollars - just for COVID-19 testing in schools that's from Health and Human Services. They can hire teachers, of course, to reduce class sizes or more nurses or school counselors to deal with the mental health fallout of the pandemic. However, anything that involves hiring is a little tricky because as a district leader, you have to think about how you're going to fund that position beyond the next 2 1/2 school years, right? You don't want to go over what's called a fiscal cliff.

CHANG: Right. OK. But what about equity for more vulnerable students? Like, that's something we've heard President Biden talk a lot about recently.

KAMENETZ: We have, and it's in here. The package does steer the money - more of it - to high-poverty schools and districts using a funding formula the federal government often uses. There's money also earmarked especially for students with disabilities and especially for homeless students. And importantly here, Ailsa, there's language that states can't just cut their own spending on high-poverty schools and use the federal dollars to make up for it. That's something, unfortunately, that happened quite a bit during the Great Recession, which was the last time school budgets faced the kind of crisis that many are facing now.

CHANG: That is NPR's Anya Kamenetz from our education team.

Thank you, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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