The order instructs the secretary of Health and Human Services to avail federal funds through the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program to disadvantaged families for educational alternatives and services.
Although specifics about how the program will work are not yet available, the White House says the funds may be used for tuition and fees at private or parochial schools, for homeschooling, micro-schools, or learning-pod costs, and for special education services, tutoring, or remedial education.
Under CSBG, which received an additional $1 billion under the CARES Act, funds are awarded to states and U.S. territories to alleviate poverty and address the needs of low-income individuals, and even prior to the president’s executive order were described as eligible for providing services and activities related to education.
Texas grants are largely managed by the state Department of Housing and Community Affairs, but the governor designates eligible entities, and each state has some discretion over how funds will be used.
Schools of all kinds were ordered closed last March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the president’s new order notes that in low-income areas, student’s math progress decreased by nearly half, and those of middle-income students fell by nearly one third.
A recent policy analysis suggested that the education setbacks prompted by 2020 school closures will have a long-lasting impact and result in an estimated loss of $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings for the average K-12 student.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), a proponent of expanding school choice options, praised the presidential order and accused Democrat officials of “flexing their authoritarian instincts” in continuing to press for continued school closures.
“Arbitrary shutdowns of public and private K-12 schools have left a generation of students behind,” said Cruz. “I’m grateful the administration has taken this step to provide emergency learning scholarships for students, empowering parents with the resources they need to support their children’s education during these unprecedented times.”
Emily Sass, policy director of the Next Generation Texas campaign at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said that under current conditions families need educational options “more than ever.”
“Virtual learning is working great for some students it is working terribly for others, and that’s unique to each family,” Sass told The Texan. “Families desperately need flexibility to respond to their own educational circumstances. Low-income families are some of the hardest-hit by both COVID-19’s economic upheaval and school closures, but they have fewer resources to shore up their children’s educational needs.”
“This executive order clears the way for benefits already designed to assist low-income families to help those families access needed supports for their children.”
In Texas, local and state officials have clashed over school opening policies with teacher’s unions vehemently advocating for continued closures and, in some cases, filing lawsuits against districts that have moved to open.
Although some counties attempted to issue blanket orders preventing school openings last fall, Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton asserted that authority lay with local school officials, and state funding has permitted some districts to continue to offer virtual rather than in-person instruction.
The disruption to student learning has prompted the Texas Education Agency to pause A-F school ratings for the 2020-2021 school year, but public schools, both charter and traditional district schools, will still be required to administer the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests.
Earlier this year, Cruz joined Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) in introducing the School Choice Now Act that would offer tax credits for individuals and corporations contributing to scholarships for K-12 students, but most school choice programs are products of state, not federal, efforts.
Last summer U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attempted to allow for more federal CARES Act funds to go to private schools serving low-income students, but courts ruled against the effort.
Texas legislators have resisted efforts to offer K-12 education alternatives in the Lone Star State, but through the CSBG program, Abbott could make such options available to low-income families. Current projections for the Texas program indicate $31 million will be designated to various subrecipients in 2021, mostly regional community service groups and cities.
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden consistently sided with education unions who oppose expanded school choice options and even public charter schools. Since presidential executive orders are not approved by Congress, Trump’s actions could be rescinded under a Biden administration. Monday’s order regarding the CSBG program, however, falls within the original language permitting grants to be used for educational purposes and may yet survive.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.