Feds hand down equity-focused rules for coronavirus relief spending

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s department recently released new details on an equity rule that will guide Idaho’s spending of an historic infusion of federal stimulus money.

The U.S. Department of Education Wednesday fleshed out the details of an equity rule that could have wide-ranging implications for Idaho’s ability to spend federal coronavirus relief funds.

Idaho’s school districts and State Board of Education will be required to keep up financial support for high-poverty, K-12 schools to maintain access to some $440 million in federal relief money from the American Rescue Plan (ARP), per new guidelines. Over the next two fiscal years — which overlap with the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years — the state:

  • May not disproportionately cut funding to districts and charters designated as “high-poverty.”
  • May not cut funding to districts and charters designated as “highest-poverty” below fiscal year 2019 levels.

Over the same span, districts may not disproportionately cut funding or staff at their schools designated as “high-poverty.”

The new rules are meant to prevent states from cutting funding in districts that are receiving a larger share of per-pupil funding from ARP, effectively zeroing out built-in equity measures. Districts with a higher share of low-income students will receive the bulk of ARP funds; the money has been divvied up through the Title I formula, which policymakers often use as a shortcut to inject more money into low-income districts.

Requirements complement a larger equity push

During the 2021 Idaho legislative session, state leaders knew that a so-called “maintenance of equity” provision housed in ARP would tie strings to federal relief spending. But they weren’t sure what the requirement would entail.

Wednesday’s announcement clarifies what parameters school boards will need to follow as they budget over the coming months, and what cuts legislators must be aware of as they vote on education budgets next session.

The new guardrails align closely with one of Congress’ main goals in drafting ARP’s education policy: alleviating the disparate impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on marginalized communities.

“The ARP Act, as I’m sure you’re aware by now, has a high focus on poverty, low income, the poor,” legislative budget analyst Jared Tatro told Idaho’s Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee in April. “And when it comes to (the funding for) education, there’s a big focus on that as well.”

Jerome School District, for example, will receive $5.8 million, substantially more than the larger Jefferson County School District, which is set to receive $4.5 million. Though Jefferson enrolls over one and a half times as many students as Jerome, it educates far fewer Title I students, giving Jerome a funding edge. (Find out how much your district will receive per-pupil and total below).

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The boost to low-income districts comes after years of debates about how and whether state funding mechanisms could be revised to level inequalities came up empty.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls

“We do know that low-income students are at tremendous risk of failure in our current system, and that one of the great travesties of our funding formula is: we do not provide any additional state funds for low-income students,” state Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, told JFAC in April.

What’s next?

While the new rule will limit Idaho’s ability to cut into dollars targeting economically disadvantaged districts, ARP funds give spenders greater latitude than the first two, smaller stimulus packages passed during the pandemic.

“These are some of the most flexible federal dollars (we’ve) ever received,” Gov. Brad Little’s budget director Alex Adams said at a Boise Metro Chamber meeting last month. “Usually, federal dollars come with strings attached.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the State Board was still reviewing the new guidelines, spokesman Mike Keckler said by email. He added the new equity guidelines will guide the board’s allocation of “set-aside” funds, or relief money managed by the state, which accounts for one tenth of Idaho’s share.

The other 90% will flow directly to districts and charters, which are required to post ARP spending plans to their websites within 30 days of receiving their first cash infusion. Notably, the State Department of Education will not withhold funds from districts that don't comply, and there's no established enforcement mechanism to force compliance.

Districts are set to formally get access to the money July 1, but expenditures dating back to partway through last year can be reimbursed.

The state is currently in the process of submitting its revised spending plan, a process that's been delayed once already.

The State Board is also required to submit budget numbers proving the state has so far complied with the new maintenance of equity rules. Those numbers are due June 30.

Idaho Education News Data Analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report. 

Blake Jones

About Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected]

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