Education Equity in Crisis: Prioritizing Vulnerable Students with Federal CARES Act Stimulus

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus package. In this first round of education stimulus, K-12 schools, colleges, and universities across the country will receive over $30 billion.

The Education Trust–West has partnered with UnidosUS, Alliance for a Better Community, and the University of California Student Association to urge California’s leaders to keep equity at the center of stimulus spending decisions, especially students of color, low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities.

Below, we break down how much stimulus funding is available to California’s K-12 and higher education systems and how to best use this funding to direct resources to families and communities hardest hit by the coronavirus.

How much is California getting?

Figure 1: California CARES Act Education Stimulus

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, provides $30.75 billion nationwide to K-12 schools, higher education institutions, and governors for educational purposes. About $3 billion goes directly to governors, just over $13 billion to K-12 schools, and almost $14 billion to colleges and universities.

California will receive an estimated $ 3.74 billion of the total education stimulus. Of this $3.74 billion, K-12 schools will receive $1.65 billion[i], colleges and universities will receive $1.73 billion[ii], and the governor will $355 million[iii] for emergency education spending.


How Much are K-12 Schools Getting?

California’s K-12 schools will receive a total estimated $1.65 billion. The California Department of Education (CDE) has the option to retain up to 10 percent of this amount for state-level needs. Once the state receives these recovery dollars, they will be dispersed to local education agencies (LEAs) – districts, charter schools and county offices of education – based on the economic need of schools (i.e., Title I allocations). To put this amount in context, the total K-12 budget for this fiscal year is $103.4 billion[iv]. The stimulus represents just 1.6 percent of the state’s K-12 education budget.

What Can K-12 Schools Do with the Stimulus?

The CARES Act specifies that LEAs can use stimulus funds for any purpose under four major education laws [v] including to:

  1. Meet needs associated with COVID-19

  2. Meet the needs of historically underserved students

  3. Address mental health needs

  4. Address technology needs.

Because the four education laws mentioned in the CARES Act give LEAs wide discretion for using federal dollars, districts, charter schools, and county offices of education are free to use the stimulus for almost any purpose. LEAs have until September 2021 to spend stimulus funding, and since it is not an on-going source of funds, it should not be used for expenditures like hiring new personnel. While LEAs may have broad discretion to use these funds, it is clear that Congress intended the stimulus be used to support the needs of the most vulnerable students.

How will schools receive funds?

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) will develop an application for states to complete that should be available by the end of April. Once states apply, ED has 30 days to disperse funds. Once states receive stimulus dollars, they will allocate them to districts. Based on this process districts will likely receive stimulus funds by June.


How Much are Colleges and Universities Getting?

Colleges and universities in California will receive an estimated $1.73 billion. The stimulus funds will be allocated directly to colleges and universities once they complete an application. The amount of aid a college or university receives is based primarily on the economic need of students enrolled (i.e., number of students receiving Pell Grants[vi]). For context, the combined operating budgets for the University of California ($39.7 billion), California State University ($11.5 billion), and California Community College ($15.2 billion) systems for 2019-20 is $66.4 billion[vii]. The stimulus for the public systems is $ 1.37 billion and represents just 2.1 percent of our public higher education systems’ operating budgets[viii].

What Can Colleges and Universities Do with the Stimulus?

Colleges and universities are required to use at least 50 percent of stimulus funds for emergency grant aid that goes directly to students, and can cover living expenses like, food, housing, childcare, and healthcare. The other 50 percent of the stimulus is left to each college or university’s discretion.

How Will Higher Education Receive Funds?

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has already begun distributing the 50 percent of the stimulus reserved for direct student emergency financial aid.[ix] It is estimated that ED will disperse the second 50 percent of stimulus for colleges and universities by the end of April after they complete an application.

Considerations for Stimulus Spending

State Leaders

  • Require reporting, transparency, and engagement. The Legislature should require LEAs, and compel colleges and universities to track and make publicly available stimulus spending. This is key in order to have a clear picture of the impact of stimulus funds, communicate to communities how LEAs, colleges, and universities are using emergency dollars, and to make the case for additional funding. Additionally, the Legislature should strongly encourage higher education leaders to disclose the criteria they are using to provide students emergency financial aid and ensure all students are aware of the criteria and the availability of emergency aid. The Legislature should also ensure that education leaders are soliciting input from stakeholders while making stimulus spending decisions.
  • Advocate for additional federal stimulus for education. This stimulus is insufficient to address the educational needs brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, especially those of California’s most vulnerable students. State leaders should raise California’s needs to federal government leadership to secure additional rounds of education stimulus.
  • Prioritize funding for Community Colleges. Since the stimulus funding allocated to colleges and universities is based on full-time equivalent student enrollment, the stimulus community colleges will be receiving is significantly less than other institutions because of the high numbers of part-time community college students. The Governor has $355 million to use at his discretion and should prioritize the federal dollars for community colleges and legislators should consider the shortfall of federal stimulus for community colleges when allocating state funds to address the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Take up Pandemic-EBT. We are happy to see that California has applied to opt into the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program. This program will provide nutritional benefits to families in need via credits on an electronic debit card they can use at participating stores. This is a more efficient, safe, and convenient solution to meet students’ basic nutritional needs.
  • Provide emergency aid for undocumented college students. Undocumented students are placed in an even more vulnerable and uncertain situation having no access to CARES Act emergency student aid. The Legislature and governor should allocate funding for emergency aid to go directly to undocumented students to mitigate the already disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on this group of students.
  • Maintain Education Budget to the Extent Possible. Receiving this stimulus requires states to maintain the same level of funding so that states aren’t incentivized to use the stimulus to supplement cuts to the education budget, with an exception for a significant decline in state revenue. While it is clear we’re heading into a recession, we encourage the Legislature and the Governor to do everything possible to maintain as close to current education funding levels as possible. If cuts are necessary, avoid making them across-the-board. Students who are the most in need should be prioritized for funding and should be cut the least.

K-12 Leaders

  • Prioritize all stimulus funding for highest need students and schools. Any amount of stimulus funding a district gets will be a small fraction of its overall budget. To maximize the impact of the funding and to address the most urgent needs, district leaders should concentrate its use on the students hit hardest by this crisis. District leaders should prioritize investments in distance learning accessibility like teacher professional development and planning time, internet connectivity, and accessible equipment, devices, and instructional materials for English learners, students with disabilities, and students living in poverty.
  • Pay special funding consideration to undocumented students. Districts leaders should put extra focus on meeting both the instructional and basic needs of undocumented students and students in mixed-documentation status households since undocumented Californians won’t receive federal Economic Impact Payments.
  • Allocate resources for developing Distance Learning Plans. Educators have put a significant amount of effort into transitioning instruction to a distance learning model, with students as their top priority. While we appreciate this work and acknowledge the amount of effort that educators applied to this transition, districts should financially support the development of Distance Learning Plans. This will help to coordinate instruction and ensure that students receive equitable access to quality instruction across districts. These plans should include both the instructional and socio-emotional supports students will receive via distance learning. Districts should also make these plans publicly available in multiple languages through district and school websites, email, and U.S. mail so that caregivers are aware of how districts will provide learning to their children.
  • Improve communication with students and families. In a distance learning environment communicating with students and families is crucial to student success and ensuring opportunity and achievement gaps don’t get worse. District leaders should provide resources like communications platforms, time, and interpretation and multilingual services for educators to be creative in reaching the hardest-to-reach students and reaching them in the language spoken at home. It is likely the students who are difficult to reach that are the most in need of support.
  • Support building caregivers’ capacity to take part in instruction. In a March 2020 parent poll, The Education Trust–West conducted post-school closures, 89 percent of parents reported they were concerned their children would fall behind academically. Districts should use stimulus funds to equip parents and caregivers with the training and resources they need to support their children’s learning. This is particularly important for parents and caregivers who are not native English speakers and need to receive accessible materials that explain how to support their children in a distance learning environment at home.

Higher Education Leaders

  • Prioritize all stimulus funding for most vulnerable students. The amount of stimulus funding colleges and universities are receiving is very minimal compared to the financial needs stemming from the COVID-19 crisis. Colleges and universities must use all stimulus funds with the most vulnerable students in mind, including temporary protected status students, unhoused students, student parents, and students from low-income backgrounds. Colleges and universities must support the basic needs of the most vulnerable students to minimize the possibility of students leaving school, especially considering students do not qualify for federal Economic Impact Payments. For the 50 percent of stimulus funds going directly to students, colleges and universities should share broadly that this aid is available to students and the criteria they are using to determine which students will receive it. Once criteria are determined, disbursement should be automatic to qualifying students so students receive the aid as soon as possible.
  • Allocate resources to collect data to best assess student needs. The education stimulus package will barely scratch the surface of the significant economic needs of California’s higher education students resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. In order to best assess student needs and make the best case for additional federal stimulus dollars, colleges and universities should use this stimulus money to communicate with students and collect data on the breadth of their needs.
  • Fund student support programming and outreach. Academic support programming for underrepresented students is more important now than ever. In order to retain current students, colleges and universities should use stimulus funding to make academic support programs available to students remotely. Colleges and universities should also use stimulus funds for programs that support the transition of underrepresented high school seniors to college. This class of seniors is particularly susceptible to summer melt and not being able to successfully make the transition to college. Colleges and universities should zero-in on these students to ensure they successfully make it to their freshman year of college.

What Advocates Can Do


  1. Tell your school, district, college, and university leaders to prioritize equity in using stimulus.

  2. Express your immediate needs directly to school, district, college, and university leaders.

  3. Raise your concerns and desire for equitable and transparent stimulus spending to your state representatives and the governor.

As the federal government passes additional education stimulus, Ed Trust–West will provide applicable commentary.




[i] Rebecca R. Skinner and Emma C. Nyhof, “Estimated State Grants Under a Proposed Education Stabilization Fund for a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund and an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, Assuming an Appropriations Level of $30.750 Billion” (Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, March 25, 2020).

[ii] The Education Trust-West analysis of U.S. Department of Education CARES Act allocation data and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data, and

[iii] Skinner and Nyhof, “Estimated State Grants.”

[iv]California Department of Finance, “California State Budget 2019-20,” (Sacramento, CA, June 2019),

[v] The four laws that the CARES act refers to for spending guidelines are the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

[vi] Pell grants are awarded to students from low-income families. Pell grants are awarded to students from low-income families.

[vii]California Legislative Analyst’s Office, “The 2020-21 Budget: Higher Education Analysis,” (Sacramento, CA, February 2020),

[viii] The Education Trust-West analysis of U.S. Department of Education CARES Act allocation data and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data, and

[ix]Ashley Smith and Larry Gordon, “California colleges and universities share in $1.7 billion in emergency stimulus funds,” EdSource, Apr. 9, 2020,

For more education equity-centered resources and responses, click here.