Illinois school districts will receive more than half a billion dollars in federal stimulus funds as a result of the CARES Act. School districts across the state are now applying for about $512 million dollars that the Illinois State Board of Education will distribute based on how many low-income students districts serve. The money is intended to help districts address the financial fall-out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At an ISBE board meeting on Wednesday, Donna Leak, vice chair for the board and superintendent of Community Consolidated Schools District 168 in Chicago’s south suburbs, cautioned that the money will help, but schools are facing unprecedented expenses.
“If there’s requirements in terms of social distancing in schools that means that you have to potentially have smaller class sizes… which now increases the number of spaces that are needed and it increases staff,” Leak says. “It’s a perfect storm that we’re just trying to figure out in the field.”
Robert Wolfe, finance officer for ISBE, says schools can also apply for a separate pot of funding totaling roughly $54 million, which will be distributed to districts based on their need for technological resources. Another $2.8 million has been set aside to assist the state board with its own administrative costs, he says.
“Yes, $569 million is a substantial amount of funding but it is on or around what we annually distribute (in federal funding)… yes, it is timely and it is needed, but contextually it is what it is,” Wolfe says.
State Superintendent Carmen Ayala says the switch from in-person to remote learning has highlighted the digital divide between wealthy and poorer schools and families.
During the meeting, she said the extra $54 million received from the CARES Act will be given to the neediest school districts.
“And they would have to submit to us their technology inventory to justify the funds. We really want to provide additional funding to those districts to address the digital divide and connectivity,” she says.
A spokesperson for ISBE wrote via email that the majority of the $54 million will be spent on purchasing tablets and laptops, virtual coaching for an estimated 4,000 teachers who will enter the field this fall, professional development and to address internet connectivity. State officials say they will open applications for the additional funding as soon as possible.
Funding for private schools
Wolfe also noted the controversy around how CARES Act funding will be distributed to private schools. The U.S. Department of Education issued guidance stating the public schools should share their federal stimulus funding with private schools based on total enrollment at those private schools — which is contrary to how such funds have been historically allocated and would result in more federal aid money going to private schools. Some states, like Indiana and Maine, have rejected this guidance and advised their public school districts to distribute funds to private schools based only on how many low-income students they enroll.
Wolfe says Illinois took a different approach. He says the state is advising districts to distribute funding to private schools in their jurisdiction based only on how many low-income students they serve — but to set aside additional funding in case they need to allocate money based on total enrollment.
“That decision was made primarily to ensure we got the money out the door. We know there is indecision and we did not make a decision,” Wolfe says. A spokesperson for ISBE says the state agency is awaiting further guidance from the U.S. DOE.
State officials say school districts have until Sept. 30, 2021 to spend the federal stimulus money.