Illinois advocates are urging Governor J.B. Pritzker and State Board of Education Superintendent Carmen Ayala to prioritize school district use of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES Act) funding on resources and supports for the state’s most marginalized children and families. In a letter to the Governor and Superintendent, the advocates also outline steps to ensure that the spending of CARES Act funds by Illinois districts is transparent and undertaken in collaboration with students and families facing greater inequities caused by the impact of COVID-19 on their education.
Brighton Park Neighborhood Association, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Chicago United for Equity, and Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education are leading an emerging coalition working to address the state’s inadequate and inequitable funding of public schools, especially high poverty schools and those serving communities of color.
The Illinois coalition is part of the Partnership for Equity and Education Rights (PEER), a multi-state network convened by Education Law Center. PEER is focused on improving investments in public education and advocating for expanded educational opportunity for marginalized children and young people in their states.
Under the CARES Act, approved March 27, Illinois will receive more than $675 million in federal funding for K-12 education. Nearly $570 million will be allocated to Illinois school districts through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, with the remaining dollars coming from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. The formula for distributing emergency relief funds allocates more to districts with high enrollments of students in poverty.
The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has thus far been proactive in issuing guidance to school districts on critical COVID-19 issues, including remote learning and meal distribution. Equity-focused guidance is now essential to ensure the CARES Act federal funds improve learning opportunities for students disproportionately impacted by school closures and the “digital divide” by providing internet access, devices, online learning platforms, and meals and other supports so they remain connected to their school communities.
“We are calling on Governor Pritzker and Superintendent Ayala to use CARES Act funding as it was intended, to make certain that marginalized students do not experience further learning inequities, whether because of the digital divide or lack of compensatory services when we return to in-person learning,” said Jianan Shi, Executive Director of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education.“ This funding cannot and should not be used to backfill budget gaps.”
The advocacy coalition is also urging the ISBE to require districts to have a robust and meaningful participatory process that engages students and families in the decision-making on the use of CARES Act funds. Families, students and grassroots organizations are a key source of information vital to providing effective and equitable learning opportunities and support services. A task force that includes parents and students and a process for broader engagement must be put in place immediately.
Illinois and other states will be confronting drops in revenue from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy. The Illinois advocates are urging Governor Pritzker not to cut current levels of state support for public schools in reaction to the crisis. In the last recession, cuts in state school funding had the greatest impact on the low-wealth school districts that will need even more resources to serve students while schools are closed and make up for student learning loss when they reopen. It is incumbent on Illinois and the federal government to ensure public schools have the resources necessary to educate all students effectively and equitably in the coming months.
“Illinois, like states across the country, is facing unprecedented challenges in educating our children and young adults while schools are closed to stop the spread of coronavirus,” said Jennifer Doeren, PEER Director. “The CARES Act was a good first step from Congress in approving additional funding for states and school districts to address immediate and emergent needs. But the federal government must do much more to ensure Illinois has the funding and resources needed to weather this crisis and continue to meet the state’s obligation to ensure all Illinois public school children the opportunity to learn.”
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