Federal Flash: Senate Moves One Step Closer to Historic Investments in Public Education

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August 16, 2021 01:49 pm

It’s been another busy week on Capitol Hill. Senate Democrats passed a $3.5 trillion budget resolution that will expand public education by four years and make other critical investments in schools. Shortly before that, the Senate also passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes funding for broadband access. We’ll also cover the Biden administration’s efforts to support safe school reopening and new guidance from the Department of Education on Maintenance of Equity as they continue to approve and monitor state plans to spend the American Rescue Plan Act funds.

FY2022 Budget Resolution

Last week, Senate Democrats passed a budget resolution instructing committees to develop a $3.5 trillion spending package covering a wide range of economic and domestic policy goals. Once finalized, all committee proposals will be combined into a reconciliation bill that the Senate can pass by a majority vote, instead of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

The budget resolution includes several critical education initiatives. Importantly, it builds on President Biden’s American Families Plan to expand public education by four years. As we discussed on a previous Federal Flash, the plan would invest hundreds of millions of dollars to create universal pre-K for all three-and four-year-olds. In addition, the Senate HELP Committee will develop a plan to provide free community college for two years through a new state-federal partnership. All4Ed, along with other education and civil rights organizations, urge the HELP Committee to include debt-free college pathways for students who take college courses while in high school. Otherwise, the legislation may unintentionally discourage students from participating in dual enrollment programs that could cost money, while two years of community college would be free. As our President and CEO Deborah Delisle put it, “As we expand community college, we must ensure college completion—not just enrollment—remains the goal.”

The reconciliation bill also extends the child tax credit passed as part of the American Rescue Plan, increases the maximum Pell Grant award, provides funding for HBCUs and other minority serving institutions (MSIs), and invests in school infrastructure. As part of the infrastructure investments, we hope the Senate will include continued funding for the Emergency Connectivity Fund to increase high-speed internet access. As we’ve covered in prior episodes, this program is critical to addressing learning loss and closing the Homework Gap.

Senate Committees have until September 15th to write their respective portions of the bill, and all 50 Democratic Senators will need to support the reconciliate package for it to pass and be sent to the House of Representatives.

Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill

Just before Senators began voting on amendments to the budget resolution, they passed a bipartisan, $1 trillion infrastructure bill, with 19 Republicans joining the 50 Democrats in support. Although the bill focuses on “hard infrastructure,” like roads and bridges, it nevertheless provides needed investments in education. This includes $15 billion to remove lead pipes from schools and ensure students have clean drinking water and $5 billion to upgrade school buses to clean energy models.

The bill makes even larger investments in broadband. First, there’s $42 billion to expand high-speed internet to areas without connectivity. States will receive funding based on the scope of the digital divide, with funds set-aside for high-cost areas. The bill also addresses broadband affordability by expanding the Emergency Broadband Benefit by $14 billion and opening it to those earning up to 200% of the federal poverty line. As a reminder, the program, first funded in last December’s COVID relief package, provides eligible households with discounts in purchasing broadband services, as well as a computer or tablet. Finally, the bill includes nearly $3 billion for states to develop digital equity plans and promote digital literacy, as well as $2 billion to increase connectivity on tribal lands.

The infrastructure bill now heads to the House. Speaker Pelosi has indicated they won’t take up the infrastructure bill until the Senate passes the budget reconciliation package. However, nine moderate House Democrats have said they will not vote for the budget resolution until the infrastructure bill passes and is signed into law. This is significant because the Democratic majority in the House is too thin to pass budget resolution without their support. Needless to say, the path forward for these bills is uncertain.

Efforts to Support Safe School Reopening

It’s mid-August, which means students and teachers are beginning to return to school throughout the country. As schools reopen amid a COVID resurgence due to the Delta variant, the CDC updated its guidance to again recommend universal indoor masking for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC further recommends that fully vaccinated individuals who may have interacted with a potentially exposed person be tested even if they are asymptomatic. As states and districts across the country make decisions about COVID-19 safety protocols as part of their reopening plans, some, like California, are requiring vaccines for teachers—a policy supported by the nation’s largest teacher’s union, the NEA.

To support school reopening, the U.S. Department of Education published a “Return to School Roadmap” to provide guidance to schools on implementing the CDC’s guidance on reopening schools safely. The guide also describes how schools can use federal funds to support reopening. Meanwhile, the Biden Administration and Secretary Cardona continue to encourage teachers, staff, and all eligible students to get vaccinated for COVID-19 before “back to school.”

Guidance on Maintenance of Equity Requirements

Finally, the Department of Education issued new guidance on the Maintenance of Equity requirement for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, program under the American Rescue Plan (ARP). As we discussed on a previous Federal Flash, Maintenance of Equity guards against disproportionate budget cuts in high-poverty schools and districts. The guidance clarifies that a school district may be exempt from the provision in FY2022 if it has not, and will not, experience a reduction in total state and local per pupil funding.

Relatedly, the Department has now approved ARP plans for 27 states and Washington, D.C. Once approved, states receive their remaining ESSER funding from the American Rescue Plan. To monitor and track how states made use of ESSER funds, the Department is seeking public comments on data collection regarding ESSER implementation, including the Maintenance of Equity requirement. Comments are due at this link by August 31st.

This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the August 16 episode of Federal Flash, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. The podcast and video versions are embedded below. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email alliance@all4ed.org.

Jenn Ellis is director of state government relations and Ziyu Zhou is a policy analyst at All4Ed.

coronavirus, Federal Education Budget, Federal Flash

Federal Flash: Money, Money, Money—Congressional Democrats’ Big Plans for Education Spending

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July 20, 2021 12:24 am

It was a busy week on Capitol Hill. The House Appropriations Committee passed an education spending bill that would significantly increase federal K–12 funding and prioritize new funds to high-poverty districts. Congressional Democrats also announced a $3.5 trillion framework, which would expand free public education by four years as proposed in President Biden’s American Families Plan. And finally, the Senate held confirmation hearings for three more Biden administration nominations to the Education Department.

House FY2022 Education Appropriations Bill

Last week the House Appropriations Committee passed a $65.6 billion K–12 education funding bill for fiscal year (FY) 2022, which begins at the end of September. The 62% increase would significantly boost the federal investment in K–12 education.

In particular, it more than doubles funding for the Title I program to $36 billion, an historic investment in the education of students in high-poverty communities. What’s more, to improve funding equity, the bill would allocate nearly 80% of the new Title I funds through the Targeted Grants and Education Finance Incentive Grants, or EFIG, formulas. Targeted Grants provide greater funding to schools serving high numbers or concentrations of low-income students. EFIG provides additional funding to states based on the equity and effort of their school finance systems. As one of our longstanding priorities, we’re excited by the Committee’s commitment to advancing equity and their proposal to target additional, much-needed federal resources to chronically underserved communities.

To be clear, the Title I increase in the House appropriations bill differs from President Biden’s $20 billion proposal for new “Equity Grants” in his FY2022 budget request that we discussed on a previous Federal Flash. The appropriations bill increases the total funding that flows through the existing Title I formulas, while the Equity Grants would have created a new, and separate, funding mechanism designed to address state and local resource inequities.

Beyond Title I, the appropriations bill also increases funding for special education, educator development, English learners, and the Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Full service community schools would see the most dramatic increase—boosting funding from $30 to $443 million. The Charter School Program, however, sees a slight cut from $440 to $400 million, along with a prohibition on funds supporting charter schools operated by for-profit organizations.

The bill faces considerable opposition from Republicans and a long road before becoming law, especially as any funding bill coming out of the House would need to be reconciled with the Senate. We’ll keep you posted.

Human Infrastructure Deal Headed for Reconciliation?

Sticking with large spending proposals, Congressional Democrats announced a deal on a $3.5 trillion human infrastructure framework to go along with the bipartisan framework focused on more traditional infrastructure. The deal includes an expansion to the child tax credit, investments to combat climate change, and four additional years of public education. To pay for it, the proposal includes new taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans.

This framework builds on proposals put forth in President Biden’s American Families Plan, which we discussed on a previous Federal Flash. We agree with President Biden that 12 years of public education is insufficient to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, and we’re pleased the framework includes universal pre-K for three-and four-year old children and two years of free community college.

The framework, however, is just a framework at this point—not a full plan or bill. As such, other education-related proposals are on the table, such as funding free school meals for all students and funding to close the Homework Gap and expand access to high-quality broadband.

Once a bill is finalized, Democrats plan to pass it through the reconciliation process to avoid a potential Senate filibuster. Unlike other pieces of legislation requiring 60 votes to end debate, reconciliation bills need only 51 votes, but the bills must pertain to tax and spending. With Democrats having 51 votes only with Vice President Harris breaking the tie, the $3.5 trillion framework will likely need support from all 50 Democratic Senators to have a chance at becoming law. Moreover, the Senate Parliamentarian, a nonpartisan official, must rule whether all of the spending proposals can be included under the reconciliation rules. We’ll keep you posted.

Confirmation Hearing for Three Biden Nominees

Meanwhile, the Senate Education Committee held a confirmation hearing on three of President Biden’s key nominees to the U.S. Department of Education: Catherine Lhamon to be Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Lisa Brown to be General Counsel, and Roberto Rodriguez to be Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. While the consideration of Brown and Rodriguez was fairly smooth, Lhamon was far more contentious. Republicans on the committee asked her questions on politically charged topics, including racial discrimination, campus-based sexual assault, and transgender students in school sports. Despite the tough questions, all three appear to be on track for confirmation by the full Senate in the coming months. 

Emergency Connectivity Fund Application Available

Finally, we’d like to remind our readers of the upcoming August 13 application deadline for the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Funding included in the American Rescue Plan. As we’ve discussed previously, it provides $7.2 billion to increase internet and technology access by helping schools and libraries purchase laptops, wireless hotspots, and broadband.

We’re hosting a webinar for district and school leaders about the Emergency Connectivity Funding program on Thursday, July 22 at 2:30 pm EDT. The webinar will feature guests from the FCC and will cover the program, how funding may be used, and the application process. Register and watch here.

This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the July 20 episode of Federal Flash, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. The podcast and video versions are embedded below. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email alliance@all4ed.org.

Anne Hyslop is director of policy development and Ziyu Zhou is a policy analyst at All4Ed.

Federal Communications Commission, Federal Education Budget, Federal Flash, Title I

Federal Flash: The Bipartisan Senate Bill You’ve Never Heard of Just Expanded Pathways to College

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June 15, 2021 12:20 pm

The U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan global competitiveness bill that includes new grants to expand science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pathways allowing students to earn college credit or an industry credential while in high school. Plus, the U.S. Department of Education published guidance on Maintenance of Equity in spending American Rescue Plan funds, launched an Education Equity Summit series, and issued a request for information on school discipline policies that could lead to new guidance and civil rights enforcement.

The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, previously known as the Endless Frontier Act. The roughly $250 billion package—designed to increase American global competitiveness—makes major investments in science and technology, but flew under the radar amid ongoing negotiations over infrastructure. A key goal of the bill is to increase the number of American students attaining college credentials in STEM. While the bill did not expand Pell Grant eligibility to short-term programs, it did include funding for state grants to expand college and career pathways by providing high school students opportunities to gain college credit or an industry credential in STEM courses.

This STEM pathways program is similar to the Fast Track to and Through College Act that we discussed on a previous Federal Flash. Each STEM pathway would offer at least 12 credits toward an associate degree or a recognized industry credential. And critically, all pathway courses must count not only toward high school graduation, but also transfer to the state’s public colleges and universities. 

All4Ed applauds the legislation’s investment in early college opportunities. As our President and CEO Deb Delisle said:

“This bill will help keep America competitive with other countries for years to come by encouraging more students, particularly low-income and first-generation college students, to complete a higher education degree.”

But first, the House of Representatives must vote on the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. If it passes without significant changes, the bill would then head to the White House for President Biden’s signature.

Maintenance of Equity Guidance

Switching gears, the U.S. Department of Education released new guidance on the Maintenance of Equity requirement for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds included as a part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP). As a condition of receiving funds, states and districts may not disproportionately cut funding for high-poverty, high-need schools. Given that these districts and schools often bore the brunt of spending cuts during the Great Recession, we joined with a number of civil rights and other education advocates to strongly support the Maintenance of Equity requirement.

Specifically, in FY2022 and FY2023, states cannot reduce state funding per pupil to “high-need districts” at a greater rate than the overall reduction across the state. Further, they may not reduce state funding per pupil below the FY2019 level for any of their “highest-poverty districts.”

The guidance provides much-needed clarity to states in meeting the new requirement. For example, it specifies capital outlays and debt services are excluded as funding sources. It also provides examples of how states identify “high-need districts.” First, districts are rank ordered according to their percentage of economically disadvantaged students using the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) percentage. Because special districts lacking geographic boundaries, like charter school districts, may not have Census data, the guidance clarifies states can use the same data they use for Title I funding in those cases. Next, states calculate the number of students equal to 50% of their total enrollment. Finally, states identify—beginning with their highest-poverty districts—those districts that account for half of the state’s total enrollment. States use the same process to identify their “highest-poverty districts,” except that they account for just 20% of the state’s enrollment.

Districts are also subject to Maintenance of Equity. They cannot disproportionately reduce combined state and local per-pupil funding in “high-poverty schools,” nor disproportionately cut the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) staff per pupil in those schools. The guidance supports districts in identifying their schools in the highest poverty quartile that qualify as “high-poverty schools” and determining whether maintenance of equity was met. For example, it clarifies districts can use the same poverty data they already use to determine Title I school eligibility. Districts can also rank order schools districtwide, or by grade span. This can support the identification of high-poverty middle and high schools. 

When it released the guidance, the Department also announced a new Education Equity Summit Series to address inequities created and exacerbated by the pandemic. The first session will be held virtually on June 22, 2021 and feature Secretary Cardona, Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten, and a number of education leaders from across the country. It will focus on school reopening and how schools can better listen to the perspectives and meet the needs of underserved students. If you’re interested in participating in the event, you can register here.

OCR Request for Information on School Discipline

In other Department news, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a Request for Information on data, research, and suggestions regarding discipline in K-12 schools. As a reminder, in 2018, then-Secretary DeVos rescinded school discipline guidance developed during the Obama administration. Since then, Democratic lawmakers and civil rights advocates have continued to call for school discipline reform. For example, Representative Donald McEachin (D-VA) and Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) recently reintroduced the Protecting Students in Schools Act which would prohibit corporal punishment in schools receiving federal funds—a practice still permitted in 19 states. And during the presidential transition, restoring, and improving, the Obama-era discipline guidance was a top priority for many civil rights advocates.

The Request for Information is likely the first step in doing so. OCR is seeking public comments through July 23, 2021 to inform its policy guidance, technical assistance, and other resources to improve school climate and safety and to enforce civil rights laws. Comments may be submitted online through the federal eRulemaking portal.

This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the June 15 episode of Federal Flash, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. The podcast and video versions are embedded below. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email alliance@all4ed.org.

Anne Hyslop is director of policy development, and Ziyu Zhou is a policy analyst at All4Ed.

College and Career Readiness, coronavirus, Discipline, Federal Flash, STEM

Federal Flash: Biden’s Budget Invests Billions in Education Equity

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June 02, 2021 01:26 pm

President Biden released his full FY2022 budget request, with a 41 percent increase for the U.S. Department of Education and proposals to expand public education by four years and create a new $20 billion Title I “equity fund” to tackle inequities in state and local school finance, teacher pay, advanced coursework, and preschool. Plus, the bipartisan Fast Track to and Through College Act was reintroduced, and the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance on how states and districts may use federal COVID-19 relief funds.

President Biden’s FY2022 Budget

Last week the Biden administration released its full FY2022 budget request, which fleshes out the “skinny budget” from mid-April that we discussed on a previous Federal Flash. Overall, President Biden would increase the U.S. Department of Education’s budget by 41 percent to nearly $103 billion.  

The budget request incorporates key elements from the American Families Plan and the American Jobs Plan, including expanding public education by four years through $200 billion for universal pre-K and $123 billion for free community college.

While those provisions were previewed in other proposals, the administration unveiled new funding as well. This includes a $2.6 billion increase for special education grants under IDEA, a $1 billion program to help double the number of school counselors, nurses, and mental health professionals, and $100 million for middle and high school career technical education innovation projects to provide high-quality, work-based learning and other pathways to credentials. Most notably, the request includes $20 billion for new Title I “equity grants.” Rather than allocate these funds through the existing Title I formulas (which would remain flat-funded at around $16.5 billion), the new grants would flow to districts through a different, more targeted formula. However, the full details of the formula aren’t part of the budget request.

In addition to a new formula for allocating the $20 billion, the funds would be used for different—and more specific—purposes than current Title I dollars. Districts would use a portion to make teacher salaries more competitive with other professions and a portion to address disparities in access to advanced coursework. They could also use funds to expand access to preschool.

There would also be new requirements for states to access the funds, including reporting, goal setting, and progress monitoring related to state and local funding equity, competitive teacher pay, access to— and success in—rigorous coursework, and pre-K. If enacted, the equity grants would dramatically increase the federal government’s investment in under-resourced schools and could jumpstart important changes at the state and local level to make school finance more equitable.

At All4Ed, “we applaud the move to invest more in Title I schools through an additional $20 billion program that we hope will not only address state and local funding inequities for these schools but also will improve equity in access to advanced coursework. We look forward to working with Congress to see these proposals become reality.”

Like most presidential budget requests, however, the Biden budget faces considerable opposition and uncertainty. While it’s unlikely Congress will adopt President Biden’s budget proposal whole cloth, we urge Congress to build on its investments in education and strong commitment to equity.

The Fast Track To and Through College Act

Moving over to Capitol Hill, Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), and Todd Young (R-IN) reintroduced the Fast Track To and Through College Act to help college-ready high school seniors “fast track” into college-level coursework fulltime.

This bipartisan legislation builds on findings from a report by All4Ed and Education Reform Now. It authorizes competitive grants to states to redesign senior year of high school by providing two faster, more affordable pathways to college. The early college pathway provides a free, full-time course load of college-level work through dual enrollment or Advanced Placement during 12th grade. The early high school graduation pathway supports students who graduate high school a year early by using a portion of the per-pupil funding their school would have received to provide students a scholarship for any in-state public college or university. This legislation also makes low-income students in “fast track” pathways eligible for Pell grants to pay for dual enrollment course work. We’re excited to see this important legislation reintroduced and hope that Congress will pass it into law.

New Guidance on COVID-19 Relief Funds

As the deadline nears for states to submit plans on how they will use the last portion of their COVID-19 relief funds, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance on the use of federal funding allocated through the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund—which has been funded in three separate relief bills: the CARES Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and, most recently, the American Rescue Plan Act.  

The document answers Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on how ESSER funds may be used to support states and districts to reopen schools and address lost learning time. By and large, ESSER funds are more flexible than other federal dollars. Resources may be used for summer learning, helping high school students transition to college, mental health services, and supports for students with disabilities, English learners, and those experiencing homelessness. ESSER funds may also be used for related activities, like “premium pay” for teachers, COVID-19 vaccinations , and improving air quality in schools. The guidance further clarifies states cannot place conditions on how districts spend funds other than stipulating the amount that may be used on administration. Finally, states and districts may not use ESSER to bolster their “rainy day” funds that may have been drained due to the pandemic.

The new guidance is likely not the final word from the Department on ESSER funds, as we expect further guidance on maintenance of equity in the American Rescue Plan and reporting requirements. We’ll keep you posted.

Familiar Faces Return to the Department of Education

Finally, in other Department news, President Biden has nominated Catherine Lhamon to head the Office for Civil Rights. Lhamon previously held the same position during the Obama Administration, and we are excited for her return to that role. If confirmed, Lhamon would lead the Department’s work to protect K-12 and college students from discrimination, including addressing issues related to race, LGBTQ rights, and sexual assault and harassment. Another Obama administration alum, Lisa Brown, has been nominated for General Counsel. Brown is currently Vice President and General Counsel at Georgetown University. These appointments shrink the number of unfilled leadership roles at the agency, though the Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education has not yet been announced.

This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the June 2 episode of Federal Flash, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. The podcast and video versions are embedded below. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email alliance@all4ed.org.

Anne Hyslop is director of policy development and Ziyu Zhou is a policy analyst at All4Ed.

coronavirus, Federal Education Budget, Federal Flash, High School Reform

Federal Flash: New FCC Programs Offer Billions to Close the Digital Divide

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May 10, 2021 10:17 am

Two big announcements from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). First, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program opens May 12 to provide eligible, high-poverty households with discounts on monthly broadband service costs, as well as a one-time discount to purchase a computer or tablet. Also, proposed regulations for spending the emergency $7.2 billion investment under the American Rescue Plan to help schools and libraries purchase broadband and connected devices. And in other administration news, we cover Secretary Cardona’s testimony about President Biden’s FY2022 education budget request and an update on nominations to key positions at the Department of Education.

Emergency Broadband Benefit Program

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and worsened inequitable access to high-speed home internet and connected devices. To help address this problem, the FCC is opening the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program on May 12. The program was authorized by Congress last year in a coronavirus relief package. It provides federal funds to low-income households to help pay for monthly broadband services and a connected computer or tablet. Households are eligible if at least one member meets the eligibility requirements, including if a child is eligible for free and reduced-price school lunch.

Eligible households can sign up at GetEmergencyBroadband.org. Participants receive up to $50 off their monthly broadband service bill. These discounts increase to $75 per month for households on Tribal lands. Additionally, participants can receive up to $100 toward a one-time purchase of a computer or tablet if they contribute between $10 and $50.

Emergency Connectivity Fund

That’s not all the FCC’s been doing to close the digital divide. As we discussed previously on Federal Flash, the American Rescue Plan includes $7.2 billion in one-time, emergency funding to help schools and libraries in low-income communities close the Homework Gap affecting millions of students.

To distribute these Emergency Connectivity Funds, the law requires the FCC to issue regulations by May 10. In a somewhat unusual move, Acting Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel released a preview of the proposed regulations to the public—setting off a flurry of last-minute jockeying as stakeholders try to influence the final order.

The agency’s proposal would permit funds to be used retroactively to first reimburse districts for purchases made between July 1, 2020 and April 30, 2021, with a second window (if there’s remaining funding) to reimburse future purchases. Qualified purchases would include laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, and routers, but not smart phones or desktop computers. The draft order also proposes a maximum reimbursement of $400 for laptops and tablets and $250 for Wi-Fi hotspots. Although it didn’t propose a cap on reimbursements for broadband service plans, the FCC expects those will be made under bulk purchasing agreements, with costs of $10 to $25 per month.

With the FCC currently standing at four commissioners, Rosenworcel needs bipartisan support to enact the rule.

Update May 11, 2021: The FCC unanimously voted in favor of issuing the final order on May 10. Additional information is available here.

Secretary Cardona’s Budget Testimony

Shifting gears, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on President Biden’s FY 2022 budget request for the Department of Education, which would increase the agency’s budget by 41% to nearly $103 billion.

Republicans balked at the proposed increase, with Ranking Member Tom Cole (R-OK) calling it “unnecessary, irresponsible and unacceptable.” Cole did, however, signal he was open to some of the administration’s ideas, such as an increase in special education funding.

Secretary Cardona argued the proposed investments are needed to meet the unprecedented challenges caused by the pandemic and to reopen schools, as well as to address the significant, systemic inequities in our education system. While progress has been made returning students to in-person instruction, Secretary Cardona made some of his strongest statements to date about the urgency of getting students back in the classroom:

The best equity lever we have is in-person learning now. Not the fall, now. And we need to do everything to get our students in. Every day that they’re not in the classroom is a day wasted to have social-emotional engagement, to have that access to a teacher, a caring school environment…. we know students are suffering due to the trauma that they’ve experienced. They need to be in the classroom.”

Despite the hearing’s stated focus on the budget, members frequently raised other issues. For example, several Republicans accused the Department of using grant funds to push districts to adapt their civics education to incorporate the 1619 Project. In response, Secretary Cardona assured members that curricular decisions are made locally and in collaboration with the community, and reiterated that the Department does not—and cannot—mandate curriculum.

With the President’s request as a guide, Congress will continue the appropriations process in the coming weeks. To pass a budget, however, the bill needs bipartisan support. If Democrats and Republicans cannot find common ground, it’s likely Congress will pass a continuing resolution, leaving the Department to work with last year’s budget.  

New Leaders at the Department of Education

Finally, President Biden announced a handful of appointments to leadership roles at the Department of Education, including James Kvaal as Under Secretary, Roberto Rodriquez for Assistant Secretary of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Richard Cordray as Chief Operating Officer of Federal Student Aid, and former Florida Congresswoman Gwen Graham as Assistant Secretary for Legislation and Congressional Affairs. Kvaal and Rodriguez both served as advisors in the Obama White House, and Cordray was the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Rodriguez has also been an All4Ed board member since 2018.

Kvaal and Cindy Marten, the nominee for Deputy Secretary, are awaiting confirmation votes by the full Senate, while Rodriguez and Graham still need to appear before the education committee. Several other key roles remain unfilled, including the Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education.

Update May 11, 2021: Cindy Marten was confirmed as Deputy Secretary by the Senate on a 54-44 vote.

This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the May 10 episode of Federal Flash, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. The podcast and video versions are embedded below. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email alliance@all4ed.org.

Anne Hyslop is director of policy development and Ziyu Zhou is a policy analyst at All4Ed.

coronavirus, Digital Equity, Federal Communications Commission, Federal Education Budget, Federal Flash

High-Poverty Schools Must Have Poor Test Results? New York Data Show That’s Not the Case

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May 03, 2021 11:50 am

Despite the U.S. Department of Education removing some of the so-called “high stakes” attached to standardized tests by waiving accountability requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) for a second straight year, many states have continued to seek federal waivers from ESSA’s statewide assessment requirements, reflecting the ongoing debate over whether states should administer the annual tests during the pandemic given the logistical challenges, in particular, of administering assessments when so many students are learning remotely.

At All4Ed, we’ve acknowledged the challenges with administering statewide assessment this year and are pleased to see that the Department of Education has provided some flexibility for states. Yet beyond pandemic-specific obstacles, opponents have made broader arguments against statewide testing, ignoring the unique purposes that state assessments serve, compared to local assessments, such as providing results that are comparable across districts. Some opponents have suggested that state and local leaders, educators, and families do not need the data from statewide assessments—even for the purpose of allocating resources—because test results are strongly linked to students’ demographic characteristics and do not provide any new, meaningful information. For example, a letter from Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and five other members of Congress to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona argued that “this type of assessments more reliably measures socioeconomic status than student achievement.” Instead of giving statewide tests, they argued, education leaders can look at other types of data, such as attendance and access to high-speed internet, to “readily identify those most at risk of learning loss.”

States and districts certainly should look to many different types of educational data when making decisions about how to support students’ academic, social, and emotional recovery from the pandemic—including the opportunity to learn data cited by Rep. Bowman and his colleagues. However, data from statewide assessments are an important piece of the puzzle, especially when it comes to allocating funding intended to improve students’ academic success, such as the 7% of state Title I funds dedicated for school improvement and the new 5% set-aside of state funds and 20% set-aside of district funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to address learning loss. In spending the new ARPA funds, states and districts need comparable, high-quality assessment data on student learning to figure out where learning loss is most severe, as opposed to guessing which students are most at-risk academically.

It is unfair to assume that poverty, or any other student demographic characteristic, is inextricably linked to lower academic achievement. To demonstrate this point, we looked at enrollment and achievement data from the 2018–19 school year for 3,144 elementary and middle schools in New York state. First, we sorted schools into quartiles based on the percentage of students in each school who were proficient in English language arts (ELA). We then sorted schools into quartiles again based on the percentage of students in the school who were from low-income families.  

We found that New York schools serving a large share of students from low-income families were not necessarily the lowest-performing ones. Specifically, among schools that ranked in the top poverty quartile and served the most students from low-income families, nearly half (44%) were not in the bottom quartile for ELA performance, contradicting the idea that high-poverty schools can be automatically categorized as low-achieving. Additionally, two in five schools with the lowest percentage of students from low-income families did not rank in the top quartile for ELA achievement. Therefore, assuming low-poverty schools do well academically may deprive low-achieving students in these schools the opportunity to get the resources they need.

Although many types of student-related data can provide insights into the factors that impact students’ academic success, data from statewide assessments tell us exactly which students are falling behind. That’s why academic assessment data has to be part of the conversation to guide the COVID-19 recovery, even as states and districts have been rightly collecting data on different aspects of student learning during the pandemic. In order to build an equitable recovery for students, states and districts need assessment data along with other educational data to make decisions free from false assumptions and biases. It is not either/or, it is both/and.

Assessments, Every Student Succeeds Act

Federal Flash: Biden’s American Families Plan—Four Additional Years of Free Public Education

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April 30, 2021 10:41 am

Marking his first 100 days in office, President Biden unveiled the American Families Plan, which would extend free public education by four years through universal pre-K and free community college. It also invests in college access and affordability, training and diversifying the educator workforce, and school nutrition programs. Plus, all the details on the new application and guidance from the U.S. Department of Education to support states in spending funds under the American Rescue Plan equitably, including millions to support youth experiencing homelessness.

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coronavirus, Federal Education Budget, Federal Flash, Higher Education, Pell Grants, Teachers and School Leaders

Federal Flash: Biden’s Budget—A Generational Investment in Students, Schools, and Families

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April 15, 2021 11:09 am

President Biden released a preview of his proposed federal budget for the 2022 fiscal year, which includes $20 billion in new funding for Title I, $2.6 billion to support students with disabilities, and another $1 billion in new funding for students’ social and emotional wellbeing. It also increases Pell Grants and expands Pell eligibility to DACA recipients. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education made another round of waiver decisions related to state assessments, published guidance for educators and administrators in its second COVID-19 handbook, and opened a review of Title IX regulations finalized by the Trump administration.

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Assessments, Federal Education Budget, Federal Flash

Federal Flash: Biden’s American Jobs Plan—Billions for School Buildings and Broadband

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April 07, 2021 10:46 am

President Biden released his American Jobs Plan, which includes investments in school construction and modernization, childcare facilities, community colleges, and broadband infrastructure. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education issued a first batch of waiver decisions to states related to statewide testing requirements, and the House of Representatives held a hearing on charting a path toward equity in education following the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, graduation rates reach an all-time high nationally, with the greatest gains among students with disabilities. But will the pandemic wipe out states’ progress?

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Assessments, Federal Flash, High School Graduation Rates and Secondary School Improvement

Federal Flash: Grand Reopening! How the Federal Government Is Supporting Students’ Return to School

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March 26, 2021 10:09 am

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) convened the National Safe School Reopening Summit to share strategies and guidance to help schools return to in-person instruction quickly and safely. Also, President Biden announced $81 billion in education relief funds is already on its way to states as new, national survey data shows that millions of students only attend school remotely and receive little live instruction. Plus, the public comment period on new E-rate funding is open, and the Senate held its confirmation hearing for Cindy Marten to be the deputy secretary of education.

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coronavirus, Federal Flash