The House of Representatives finally passed the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better Act – with key investments for families and students. But will the bill make it through the Senate? Plus, top officials from the U.S. Department of Education face questions from lawmakers on federal COVID relief as the agency proposes big changes to its Civil Rights Data Collection. And finally, tensions between parents, schools, and governments aren’t going anywhere as Congressional Republicans introduce a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.” All that, and more, on this week’s Federal Flash.
Build Back Better Passes the House
Last week, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed the new, scaled-back Build Back Better Act. The 220-213 vote ended months of partisan infighting over priorities and cost, but not before an all-night speech from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) opposing the bill. All but one Democrat – Representative Jared Golden (D-ME) – voted for the bill with zero Republican support. After the vote, our President and CEO, Deb Delisle commended the bill and urged the Senate to maintain key provisions that benefit students.
Speaking of the Senate, the Build Back Better Act still has several hurdles to clear before it reaches President Biden’s desk. Political and parliamentary challenges mean that some provisions are likely to be cut or modified. For example, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has opposed the expansion of paid family and medical leave, with four weeks currently included in the House bill. Other Democrats have shared fears that the immigration reform portions of the bill will not pass the Senate’s technical rules – the so-called “Byrd Rule.”
Senate negotiations over Build Back Better could also collide with competing priorities. The continuing resolution keeping the government funded is set to expire on December 3rd, the debt limit increase will likely run out in the next few weeks, and the Senate must pass the National Defense Authorization Act.
The Build Back Better Act includes historic investments in families and children. It would provide $4 billion in fiscal year 2022 for universal pre-kindergarten for three- and four-year olds, ultimately expanding access for over six million children. It also includes $100 billion over the first three years to support childcare, capping costs at 7% of a family’s income for those earning up to 250% of the state median. And as we’ve discussed before, it extends the Enhanced Child Tax Credit. Build Back Better also includes access to free school meals for nine million more children and efforts to increase affordable housing options for low-income families.
While early childhood education is the big winner, there are also funds for higher education, including $500 million for college retention and completion and $4.9 billion targeted for college-industry partnership grants, which could support dual enrollment programs. Finally, it provides an additional $300 million for the Emergency Connectivity Fund to continue closing the homework gap for students and teachers.
Marten and Kvaal Testify Before Congress
Meanwhile, Deputy Education Secretary Cindy Marten and Undersecretary James Kvaal testified before the House Education and Labor committee’s pre-K to 12 and higher education panels on the use of over $160 billion in COVID-19 relief funds.
Republicans raised concerns over the amount of funds that has yet to be spent and lax oversight over states’ uses of aid. Ms. Marten defended the “thoughtful, engaged approach” many districts are taking, stressed that the Department will continue to share information with the public through its transparency portal, and reminded lawmakers that states and districts have until September 30, 2024 to spend the money. Representative Lisa McClain (R-MI) asked whether the Department would consider extending the spending deadline, as schools are facing supply chain and workforce shortages. Marten said they will continue to work with states facing those issues.
On the higher education side, Mr. Kvaal highlighted best practices in online learning programs, as many colleges will likely continue and expand these programs in the future, and the revamped federal student aid office that is working to combat fraud and misconduct.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
In other Department news, new flexibility for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program has started to take effect, with 2,600 public servants receiving $185 million in loan forgiveness. More borrowers should see relief in the coming months, as the agency estimates 30,000 borrowers will receive roughly $2 billion in relief under the temporary expansion of PSLF.
Civil Rights Data Collection
The Department also released proposed revisions to the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) for the 2021-22 school year. Although the agency does not typically collect data two years in a row, its plans for a second consecutive survey show the administration’s commitment to identify and address inequities in schools. For the first time, the CRDC will include questions about students’ pandemic experiences, including whether virtual instruction was provided and the number of students needing and receiving Wi-Fi enabled devices and hotspots. In addition, the Department is proposing to restore—and improve—dozens of data points previously eliminated by the Trump administration, including those related to preschool, advanced coursework, and educators’ years of experience. Finally, the Department is proposing to include a nonbinary sex category to capture data on nonbinary students. To read about all of the proposed changes and submit comments, visit the Federal Register by January 18, 2022.
Parents’ Role in Education
Finally, as we discussed on the last Federal Flash, debates on the role of parents in schools continue following the gubernatorial election in Virginia. Congressional Republicans, led by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), have introduced a “Parents’ Bill of Rights Act.” The bill includes provisions to give parents access to school and medical records and to know what data is being collected on their children – all of which parents can already access thanks to existing federal statutes. The bill would also require parental notice of cuts to gifted and talented programs and require districts to offer two in-person parent-teacher conferences a year, despite Republicans’ preference for local control of schools. Although the bill is unlikely to pass Congress, it does create a blueprint for states. Governor Ron DeSantis has already signed Florida’s version of such a bill.
The fight between states and the federal government over mask mandates has cooled… for now. A federal judge ruled that Texas’ ban on school mask mandates violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and puts the power to issue mask regulations back in the hands of local officials. And in Florida, the two districts that had required masks in schools have now complied with DeSantis’s policies by going mask-optional, eliminating the need for federal intervention.
Keep in mind: this is happening amidst continued pandemic-related challenges for families and education leaders. A National Parents Union’s survey found that two-thirds of parents are worried about their children’s’ academic progress and the effect of COVID-19 on their children’s’ learning and mental health. Half of parents were unaware of the additional relief funding available for schools, and most have not seen how the funds have been used to address challenges due to the pandemic. Schools are also cancelling in-person learning at record numbers in November, compared to earlier in the fall. Major districts like Seattle, Detroit, and Denver are facing teacher shortages, creating a strain on current teachers and gaps in instruction. As the pandemic recovery continues, addressing workforce shortages in early childhood education and K-12 education will be a key issue.
This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the November 24, 2021 episode of Federal Flash, All4Ed’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, D.C. The podcast and video versions are embedded above. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, visit all4ed.org/FlashSignup.
Jenn Ellis is director of state government relations and Rebeca Shackleford is director of federal government relations at All4Ed.