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117th Congress Preview: Education

By Paul Weiss

Necessities that drive federal investments in education have been exacerbated by ongoing challenges tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pressures upon elementary, secondary, and higher education have increased as state and local revenues have dried up, and the needs of these critical institutions have increased significantly. Substantial relief was included for K-12 and higher education in the latest round of economic stimulus signed into law on December 27, but the education community, and President-elect Joe Biden (D-DE) will be fighting for significantly more as the 117th Congress takes shape.

Of the $900 billion federal economic stimulus package enacted last month, $81.9 billion was earmarked for education. There is $54.3 billion set aside for K-12 public schools, and $22.7 billion for higher education. Governors will receive an additional $4.1 billion, most of which will be used to support private schools. Additional funding will be provided to the Bureau of Indian Education schools as well as to territories in the US. Much of the K-12 money is going to be provided in a way similar to Title 1 eligibility, which is weighted toward districts with higher poverty thresholds.

The K-12 funding will amount to roughly $1,000 per public school student to help address costs associated with the pandemic and to combat learning loss. Many of the districts receiving this aid will use it to defray budgetary cuts at the local level. This second tranche of stimulus funding is roughly four times what was provided last spring in the CARES Act. This assistance can be used in a variety of ways, including for the sanitization of schools, technology and remote learning, mental health services, summer and after school programs, addressing learning loss, and school building upgrades related to the pandemic. Private schools are set to receive approximately $500 per student.

Like many other hard-hit sectors, educators view this latest round of economic relief as a necessary step in the right direction, but certainly not the end of additional federal assistance for education. National Education Association President Becky Pringle sees this latest round of assistance as a “down payment” with additional support to be provided under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration and the 117th Congress.

Joe Biden ran on a platform that promised significant support for and investments in teachers, students, and school infrastructure. The First Lady-elect, Dr. Jill Biden, an educator of 30 years, is clearly a strong supporter who will have the ear of the next President. The Bidens have promised to address stagnant wages for teachers, under investments in school infrastructure, which has recently received a D+ rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Biden wants to to triple investment in Title I and require districts to use these funds to support competitive wages for educators, and to make other critical investments prior to directing the additional funding to other purposes. Biden has also called for additional supports for students to address things like mental and physical wellness and to improve learning environments and safety. He wants to increase investment in early education, and where necessary to foster “community schools” that help bridge gaps for parents and their students in impoverished areas that have additional challenges including in early childhood development and care. Biden also wants to increase impacts of career and technical education to better prepare high school students for entering the workforce upon graduation.

Overseeing such an ambitious agenda will be Miguel Cardona, who Biden has nominated to be his Secretary of Education. Cardona, a Latino public school educator with a great track record from Connecticut, will be asked to first address the overwhelming challenges brought on by the pandemic before continuing on to address pressing investment and achievement issues tied to K-12 and higher education and to combat disparities and inequities amongst the nation’s school systems that has been long apparent but brought out in the open again during the challenges of the pandemic.

Even with Democrats gaining control of the U.S. Senate after the Georgia runoffs, their majorities in the House and Senate will limit the extent to which President-elect Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda will realized. Democrats in the House, lead by House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA), put forward last year an ambitious proposal that would authorize $261 billion over 10 years to address the school budgetary crisis brought about by the pandemic and provide for investments in teachers and other salaried employees. Some 2 million educators are expected to lose their jobs over the course of the pandemic due to budget cuts.

Education advocates are going to push for both COVID-19 economic relief as well as for capital investments for antiquated infrastructure, significant increases to Pell Grants, and for student debt relief. All these priorities carry huge price tags and will be tempered by conservative lawmakers who are averse from large federal spending programs outside of defense. But given the pandemic and its increased costs and learning gaps it has created, and with the achievement gaps in pockets throughout the county, alongside very antiquated infrastructure, there may be a way forward through bipartisan collective action.

There exists bipartisan support in both the House and Senate for changes that might be included in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The changes may include simplification to financial aid applications and the creation of data systems that will better track college outcomes. Incoming Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA), has also authored and pushed for legislation that would address issues tied to campus sexual assault and to college affordability. Murray, like her counterpart Chairman Scott in the House, will get behind big new spending on education and childcare in response to the pandemic. Murray introduced legislation in the last Congress (S. 4112) with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who will be the next Majority Leader in the Senate, that would provide for $430 billion to remedy learning loss and to offer support to struggling college students.

Democrats will likely turn to budget reconciliation to move some of their major priorities early in the 117th Congress. This process, which has been used as recently as in 2017 to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act along partisan lines, can eliminate the need to get 60 votes to overcome a Senate filibuster. Under reconciliation, a simple majority can pass legislation. Education advocates will surely look to reconciliation to push education priorities tied to the pandemic and budgetary shortfalls, to make investments in teachers and educators and support staff, as well as investments in school construction and technology. The extent to which these priorities can be included in a reconciliation alongside other energy, transportation, healthcare, and tax priorities of Democrats will be tested early in the 117th Congress and under the Biden administration.