Education has always been primarily a responsibility of state and local governments. This represents longstanding practice in America and is a recognition that those closest to families are in the best positioned to deliver a quality education to every child.
So, when it came time to appropriate education funds in the first round of coronavirus stimulus, Congress entrusted governors with significant levels of flexibility to meet the needs of students. But by the second stimulus, Congress dramatically reduced governors’ flexibility – in both sheer dollar amount and as a proportion of education spending.
As Congress and President Joe Biden consider the next round of stimulus funding, they should prioritize flexible funds for governors that provide them the space to lead, to delegate to those with the best local knowledge, and innovate in ways that generations-old federal education funding formulas were never equipped to foster.
Across the country, governors have used these flexible funds to serve their communities in myriad ways, including empowering the families and educators who are coming up with better ways.
Idaho and Oklahoma are providing funds directly to families to pay for educational services and resources. Florida provided funding for in-school and out-of-school summer learning programs. Colorado and Maryland created grant programs to fund innovative practices in schools and community organizations that “rethink the student experience” or “address academic accessibility” as a result of the pandemic. North Carolina is prioritizing student health services and additional support for students who are at-risk or have a disability.
These examples represent just a few of the ways that states are living up to what Justice Louis Brandeis described as “laboratories of democracy” – the ability for individual states to test new ideas without forcing them on the rest of the country. Progress does not come from inflexible top-down mandates. It comes from a willingness to give communities the space they need to meet challenges in ways politicians and federal policymakers far removed from their community could have imagined.
Look no farther than the way states have approached bridging the digital divide – the most significant use of flexible funds. States are experimenting with direct funding to families to purchase internet access and devices, equipping school buses with WiFi to serve as community hotspots, and dozens of other public-private partnerships to enable more students to participate in remote learning.
These efforts were funded by the “Governor’s Emergency Education Relief” (GEER) Fund, part of the March 2020 CARES Act. Flexible funding for governors represented $3 billion out of $30 billion for education, with the remainder split among K-12 public schools and higher education.
However, despite increasing education spending by more than $50 billion in the second relief act (to more than $81 billion), Congress significantly reduced the amount of flexible funding for governors: $1.34 billion, compared to $3 billion in March.
This reduction was not due to lack of support. State-based education groups praised the funding, recognizing that many of the most innovative programs were spawned from the flexibility. In July, the National Governors Association and groups representing teachers, schools, and many other education interest groups submitted a letter to Congress urging “a reservation of 10 percent of funding for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund” in a future appropriation, while also “respecting the long-standing principles of state and local control that govern our education systems.”
Instead, Congress allotted governors less than 2 percent of the education funds to use flexibly, down from 10 percent in March (notwithstanding governors’ new requirement to administer $2.75 billion in grant requests from private schools for many of the same expenses public schools are authorized to use stimulus funds on).
Congress can do better than that. In any future education funding effort, congressional leaders have an opportunity to reaffirm the commitment to bottom-up, local solutions that have been the engine of progress in America. Congress should give governors the flexibility to innovate, try new approaches, and serve their communities’ unique challenges.
Adam Peshek is vice president of policy at yes. every kid.