Association of Science and Technologies Centers

A Deep Dive into the New CARES Act Grant Programs from the U.S. Department of Education

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) received $30.75 billion for an “Educational Stabilization Fund” through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, 2020. Four grant programs—each described in greater depth below—are part of this fund:

  1. Education Stabilization Fund Discretionary Grants ($307.5 million total, with $180 million allocated to the Rethink K-12 Education Models Grant and $127.5 million to the Reimagining Workforce Preparation Grant)
  2. Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund ($3 billion)
  3. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund ($13.5 billion)
  4. Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund ($14.25 billion)

While science and technology centers and museums are not directly eligible for these grants, there are opportunities for them to partner with their local school districts, state education department, and Governor’s office. Members of the ASTC community will need to make the case that science engagement institutions can offer quality online programming, professional development, curriculum, educational kits, etc. that attends to equity and is aligned with state standards. States and districts are moving quickly to develop their plans, so ASTC members should reach out to their PreK-12 education contacts in short order.

To effectively make the case, it is also important to be mindful of the larger budgetary and operational challenges schools and districts are facing. Public schools are funded through a mix of Federal, state, and local dollars, with about 48 percent of elementary and secondary schools’ budgets coming from states. Significant decreases in state funding for the 2020-21 school year are expected, as states will need to cut their budgets to account for declining revenue from sales and income taxes as well as increased spending on unemployment benefits and healthcare. According to the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), CARES Act funding will not be nearly enough to cover the anticipated declines in state support for K–12 education, which are expected to continue for several years. For example, LPI estimates that it took about 6 years, on average, for state education spending to rebound after the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, and 120,000 teaching positions were eliminated. Today’s COVID-19 pandemic adds unprecedented challenges as schools shift to online, at-home learning; address the ongoing socio-emotional impact on kids; and do what they can to address families’ food and economic insecurity. Some of these concerns are addressed in a statement from the STEM Education Coalition,  an alliance of more than 600 business, professional, and education organizations including ASTC.

Education Stabilization Fund Discretionary Grants

The CARES Act provides $307.5 million that will be distributed as discretionary grants to states with the highest coronavirus burden. ED has divided this amount between two competitions: the Rethink K-12 Education Models Grant ($180 million) and the Reimagining Workforce Preparation Grant ($127.5 million).

The Rethink K-12 Education Models Grant (ESF-REM) is “aimed at opening new, innovative ways for students to access K-12 education with an emphasis on meeting students’ needs during the coronavirus national emergency.” Only state education agencies (SEAs), or state departments of education, can apply for these grants. Science and technology centers and museums will need to approach their SEA with ideas for how they might partner on one of the three priorities outlined in the Notice Inviting Applications. Final applications are due June 29, 2020.

  1. Microgrants for parents are available to help meet the educational needs of their school-age children through increased access to high-quality remote learning. States are required to provide parents with a list of service providers, so science centers and museums should at minimum share their offerings with their state department of education.
    • EdWeek reports that microgrants will target students whose schools have been closed for at least 30 days and either have an individualized education program, or are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP.
  2. “Course-access programs” and statewide virtual schools. ED defines course-access programs as those that “enable students to select from different courses offered by any public school in the State or by third-party providers, regardless of a student’s assigned school.” ASTC is unclear about what qualifies as a third-party provider, and if a course-access program necessarily means a full semester online course, but we will update this post as we learn more. Your SEA may be able to provide more details.
  3. New remote education models. In a press release, Secretary DeVos describes this category as “new, field-initiated models for providing remote education not yet imagined, to ensure that every child is learning and preparing for successful careers and lives.”

The Reimagining Workforce Preparation Grants (ESF-RWP), managed by the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, are intended to “provide support to help States leverage the power of entrepreneurship to create new educational opportunities and pathways that help citizens return to work, small businesses recover, and new entrepreneurs thrive. These programs also build new capacity within the state to offer short-term postsecondary programs that are responsive to the needs of individuals to more rapidly adapt and evolve to ever changing workplace and community needs.” A forthcoming supplemental notice will specify which types of institutions are eligible to apply. The Notice Inviting Applications notes that state economic development or workforce agencies may be among the eligible applicants. Even if science and technology centers and museums end up being eligible, it is likely members of the ASTC community would partner with a lead applicant. ED estimates that they will make 8 to 9 awards of about $15 million each. 

Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund

The Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERF) provides $3 billion to “support to any other institution of higher education, local educational agency, or education related entity within the State that the Governor deems essential for carrying out emergency educational services to students for authorized activities…[including] the provision of child care and early childhood education, social and emotional support, and the protection of education-related jobs.” The amount of funding a Governor’s office receives is based on the state’s student-aged population and poverty levels. Governors must include a plan for how they will spend the funds in the application. See also the state allocations and the notice of funds

While GEERF funds are available until September 30, 2021, ED has emphasized that they are ready to quickly award funds. Four states—Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, and Maryland—have already been awarded funds. Science and technology centers and museums, as well as other nonprofit organizations dedicated to engaging the public with science, may be able to directly receive funding if they are carrying out or supporting essential PreK-12 educational services. However, GEERF provides governors with wide discretion on deciding where funding goes—Education Dive recently reported that higher education and PK-12 education groups have already begun strongly signaling their interests.

Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) provides $13.5 billion in flexible funding, sub-granted by SEAs to local education agencies (LEAs), including charter school LEAs. Funding has been earmarked for school districts based on their Title 1 allocation, and they can use the monies for any activities authorized under several education-related laws, including the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education (Perkins-CTE) Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). See the notice of funds and the application for a full list of eligible uses of funds.

LEAs are authorized to work with partner organizations. This means science and technology centers and museums can support activities such as providing online programming, afterschool and summer learning activities, and professional development for teachers and educators. You will first need to reach out to your local school district to learn what their needs are and propose an idea for how you might partner on their ESSER grant. 

If you are particularly interested in afterschool and summer learning, you may also wish to connect with your statewide afterschool network, which pursues policy change and partnerships at the state level, or your Department of Education contact who manages the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund

The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) provides $14.25 billion for 5,000+ eligible colleges and universities to directly support students facing urgent needs related to coronavirus, and to support institutions as they cope with the immediate effects of coronavirus and school closures. Some elite colleges and universities have stated that they will not seek these emergency funds, despite being eligible.

Funding is primarily allocated based on an institution’s share of full-time students receiving Pell Grants. Community colleges have flagged that they were at a disadvantage in this formula, as about 65 percent of their students are part-time. An interactive map from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows allocations per institution in combination with student demographic variables from College Scorecard. 

At least 50 percent of an institution’s allocation must be reserved to provide students with emergency financial aid grants to help cover expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus. Undocumented college and university students, as well as “Dreamers”—undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and are recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—are not eligible, an exclusion that has been criticized by many. Some colleges and universities are finding ways to support undocumented students and Dreamers.


The photo above is from Design2Learn, a project funded by the Department of Education and led by ExpandED Schools in partnership with the New York Hall of Science. Design2Learn paired in-school science teachers and informal educators from community-based organizations in a unique professional development program. Photo by Emma Banay.

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