Across the country, schools have opened their doors to a new school year while striving to keep children and educators safe. The Biden Administration is stepping in with new measures to support school and district leaders to manage these challenges. Last week was also a busy week on Capitol Hill. House Committees began marking up their portions of the $3.5 trillion budget resolution, the Build Back Better Act, including major proposals to lower the costs of child care and higher education and close the homework gap.
Federal Vaccine Requirements: How Schools are Affected
To keep educators, students, and families safe, President Biden announced that workplaces with over 100 employees must require their workers to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing under a new emergency rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). While this mostly concerns private employers, public-school personnel in 26 states will be affected, because they have state-level, OSHA safety plans. This means that in many states, like Tennessee and Arizona, where state laws ban vaccine requirements, educators and other school staff will need to get vaccinated to protect themselves and those around them. In addition, the President is requiring COVID vaccinations for all staff in Head Start and Early Head Start programs and in schools operated by the Department of Defense and Bureau of Indian Education.
On top of efforts to increase vaccinations, the White House is launching a grant program to reimburse school officials who’ve been penalized by their states or localities for requiring masks and other COVID-19 protections. Under the program, leaders who’ve taken such measures will have their pay restored by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has also opened a civil rights investigation in six states to determine whether states prohibiting universal mask requirements in schools are violating the rights of students with disabilities to receive equal educational opportunities. Specifically, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require schools to provide a free and adequate public education to students with disabilities, many of whom have increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. We’ll keep you posted on the probe’s findings.
Tracking COVID-19 Relief Fund Spending
Funds from the American Rescue Plan and other relief packages can be used to help schools implement COVID mitigation strategies, but until recently, ED hadn’t announced how it planned to track state and district spending. As we covered on our last Federal Flash, the agency issued a proposed data collection for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund to gather info on how relief funds are used. All4Ed, along with several civil rights and education equity partners, applauded the effort and submitted recommendations to improve the data collection. We urged ED to enhance the data’s focus on how relief funds target the needs of individual student groups, including Black and Brown students, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, English learners, and students experiencing homelessness and to expand the types of strategies it will be tracking to support students’ academic, social, and emotional recovery.
Build Back Better Act Moves Forward in the House
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, House committees will complete their budget proposals this week for the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act. As we’ve shared previously, the plan includes an additional four years of free public education: $450 billion for universal pre-K for all three- and four-year-olds and $111 billion for two years of free community college.
The House Education and Labor Committee’s plan also includes nearly $82 billion for school infrastructure, $1.1 billion for educator development programs, a $500 increase to Pell Grants, and significant support to HBCUs and other Minority Serving Institutions. Plus, it gives Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients access to federal student aid.
Build Back Better Must Focus on Students’ Transitions to College
During the pandemic, college enrollment has dropped 7%, and 270,000 fewer students have applied for Federal Student Aid since 2019, with the greatest decreases among low-income students and students of color. The decline in FAFSA completion for students from high-poverty high schools was 11% compared to only 3% from low-poverty high schools. Similarly, community college enrollment for Black and Latino students fell about 15%, while the decline was nearly 20% for Native American students.
All4Ed, along with six other education and civil rights organizations, released a new report asking Congress to use college in high school programs as a tool to boost postsecondary access and success in the Build Back Better Act. As our President and CEO, Deborah Delisle put it, “Dual enrollment and early college programs are critical to improving college retention and completion for students, particularly for low-income and first generation students.”
Yet if community college is made free without also making early college credits free, there may be an unintentional disincentive for students to participate in dual enrollment programs.
We’re pleased to see dual and concurrent enrollment and early college high schools included in the legislation as an allowable use of funds if states have federal funds remaining after providing free community college tuition, and in the new college retention and completion program. However, we recommend also allowing high school students to be eligible to receive a limited number of free, transferable credits through the free community college program.
All4Ed further urges Congress to include activities to support the transition from high school to higher education in funds promoting college retention and completion in the Build Back Better Act. These programs have been shown to improve college access and persistence, especially for students from historically underserved groups. Funding should be available for enhanced college advising, summer bridge programs, financial aid and college application counseling, and other activities with a track record of improving postsecondary success.
What’s Next for the Build Back Better Act?
In addition, the House Energy and Commerce Committee proposed an additional $4 billion for the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) in the Build Back Better Act. Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission announced over $5 billion of the initial $7.17 billion for the program has been requested during the first application window. These requests will provide over 9 million connected devices and 5.4 million broadband connections nationwide. All4Ed, along with the National Indian Education Association, the National Urban League, and UnidosUS, have called on Democratic leaders to include over $40 billion over the next five years in continued funding for the program, as proposed in the SUCCESS Act. This will keep children connected and help close the homework gap permanently.
Once House committees complete their work, negotiations with the White House and Senate will ensue to reach a final deal on the reconciliation package—which could involve scaling back these proposals to satisfy Senate rules or more moderate Senators whose votes are needed to secure final passage. In negotiating the final higher education proposals, one more key player will be at the U.S. Department of Education: James Kvaal has been confirmed by the Senate to serve as undersecretary of education. As always, we’ll keep you posted.
This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the September 15, 2021 episode of Federal Flash, All4Ed’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. The podcast and video versions are embedded above. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jenn Ellis is director of state government relations and Anne Hyslop is director of policy development at All4Ed.