March 20th, 2020

COVID-19: A Look at the CARES Act Education Proposal

After passing a bill earlier this week and taking preliminary steps to help our nation amidst the coronavirus crisis, Congress is hard at work on a third package. This time, it includes changes to federal education laws that have NCLD and our fellow advocates very concerned. And it falls far short of the provisions the disability community needs and deserves during this pandemic.

The bill released by Senator McConnell on Thursday evening — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act — drastically expands the Secretary of Education’s authority to allow states to ignore civil rights provided under federal education laws, including

  • the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA);
  • the Higher Education Act; and 
  • the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. 

Though the CARES Act does not include a waiver of requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it does direct the Secretary to provide Congress (within 30 days) with a list of the waivers that will be needed for states to implement IDEA. These waivers would free local educational agencies (LEAs) from their legal obligations, such as completing evaluations for students with disabilities, designing and implementing individualized education plans (IEPs), and providing equal educational access to students with disabilities. While it falls short of issuing these blanket waivers right now, in 30 days it will effectively open the door to dangerous and damaging changes to the most important federal protections for students with disabilities.

We recognize that schools have been thrust into a new reality and are being forced to operate in circumstances that present a number of challenges. And yet we cannot give up on students with disabilities and they cannot be left behind. In this unprecedented time, many schools are finding innovative ways to deliver instruction to all students and connect with families. While all schools may not be able to provide the same quality of instruction and intervention virtually, we must encourage and enable them to keep striving.  We must not eliminate a school’s legal obligations and toss students with disabilities to the side!

In addition, we must dramatically boost funding for districts and schools to provide quality virtual learning and the special education services that students are entitled to. Programs like IDEA, Title I of ESSA, and more will need increases through an emergency appropriations bill  to meet the demand of the present situation. Senator McConnell’s bill does nothing to address the funding crisis states are facing.

This package will likely be voted on and passed within the next several days, at which time the Senate will recess for several weeks. NCLD and our civil rights partners have already issued a statement opposing any IDEA waivers and urging only targeted, time-limited waivers under ESSA.  We’ll continue to push for funding and find ways to make sure education is a top priority in Congress’s response to COVID-19.

We are doing all we can, and we need your help! You can lend your voice to this fight now by sending an email to your Senator and urging them to vote no on Senator McConnell’s CARES Act.

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