It is pocket change, considering the $5.2 billion that Virginia received from the federal government to steer education through the coronavirus pandemic and its continuing aftershocks.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin is tagging $30 million to pay for tutoring and remedial assistance to help public, private and parochial school kids, K-12, make up for learning loss attributed to COVID-19. Lockdowns and online classes undercut student performance — test results show as much — though Democrats and Republicans sharply disagree how badly it is suffering.
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How the $30 million was teed up for the largely online program — it was announced just ahead of Youngkin's much-anticipated, education-themed appearance last week on CNN — is a measure of the often-murky, occasionally circuitous ways of the bureaucracy.
And how the money gets to those who need it is a reminder of government’s dependence on technology to speed the delivery of services. But will they reach the widest audience, given that the required IT wizardry — computers and access to the internet — may not be available to those most in need: low-income minorities?
A spokesman for the Department of Education, Charles Pyle, said by email Wednesday that the agency — roiled by Youngkin's anti-woke crusade and the sudden departure of its controversial superintendent — will work with schools and community groups "to ensure that technology and web access are not barriers to applying for, or receiving, services."
Youngkin has provided few details on his so-called Learning Recovery Grants, in the works since at least early November.
A spokesman for the governor did not respond to questions sent via text from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The Department of Education said the program could be running by late April or early May. That is the tail end of the school year. Perhaps it is too late for students trying to catch up to show measurable progress?
Education authorities inside and outside state government depict a program that is very much a work in progress, despite the urgency with which Youngkin vows to address a problem he spotlighted as a candidate in 2021, when Virginia was still in the grip of the pandemic. ClassWallet, a software company in Miami, was hired for $547,000 in late February to operate the program.
Children in low-income families — those grossing $42,000, three times the federal poverty level, or less — can qualify for grants up to $3,000. All others would be eligible for up to $1,500. Applicants would apply online for tutoring services paid for by the state and provided by selected vendors, a feature of considerable interest to education companies looking for business in Virginia.
The dollars, originally from a trove of funds for what were described as "non-public" schools, would not flow to parents and students because of federal restrictions on COVID-19 funds intended to discourage their misuse — as was seen with some of the early Washington-generated programs to rescue business from the economic crisis loosened by the coronavirus.
To Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Democratic delegate from Henrico County running for the Virginia Senate who is among the few teachers in the General Assembly, these grants are, in effect, vouchers — public funds financing private education; in this instance, tutoring for students from comparatively affluent families.
"They help the haves," said VanValkenburg. He described the initiative as a "first-come, first-serve[d] online program that goes to families who have jobs; to do enrichment programs outside the school day." VanValkenburg said that tutoring for struggling students — in particular, those from low-income homes — should be available during school hours.
In Virginia's share of the 2021 COVID-19 stimulus program, known as the American Rescue Plan, was $3.3 billion for public elementary and secondary education: $1.7 billion for colleges and universities, and at least $94 million for those "non public," or private schools, that did not participate in a program to keep people working by buttressing payrolls with federal loans.
Of that $94 million, about $70 million was unspent and reverted to a federally authorized emergency relief fund controlled by the governor — at the time, Democrat Ralph Northam. Because the administration had a free hand to spend the money on COVID-19-related education needs — be it supplies or lesson supplements — the account was known internally as "the governor's slush fund."
This is not to suggest the money would go unaccounted.
In September 2021, two months before the election in which Youngkin defeated Terry McAuliffe and Democrats lost the House of Delegates, the General Assembly added language to the budget requiring the governor to notify legislators of COVID-19 spending within 10 days. The provision was dropped the following year, in the first budget of the Youngkin administration.
This meant less transparency in spending — often a feature of government, regardless of party control — and more confusion in the already-complex budget process.
Lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — this year pressed for the whereabouts of the funds from which Youngkin is drawing the $30 million.
House Republicans, desperate for cash because they sided with Youngkin on another $1 billion in tax cuts, tracked down some of the bucks, proposing in their version of the next budget that about $11 million go to literacy and truancy programs. The proposal could be a casualty of the continuing House-Senate standoff on spending.
In the meantime, Youngkin — for whom education was a breakthrough issue in 2021 — gets to demonstrate through this grant program that he is actually mastering a job from which he is often seemed distracted by his supposed national ambitions since becoming governor 14 months ago.
Talk about learning loss.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis at 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond; 89.1 FM in Roanoke; and WHRV, 89.5 FM in Norfolk.