Congress passes a continuing resolution to prevent a government shutdown, extending the deadline to early 2022 to make budget decisions and freeing the calendar for other critical bills before the end of the year. Meanwhile, a familiar face, Jessica Rosenworcel, is officially the new chair of the Federal Communications Commission, and pushback from Congressional Democrats grows to further delay the resumption of student loan payments in February. Finally, school safety is in the spotlight again in the wake of yet another tragic school shooting.
Last week, Congress passed a second continuing resolution to keep the government funded until February 18, 2022. This means there won’t be any increases in government funding until, at the earliest, one-third of the way through the fiscal year. However, it gives Congress the room to tackle other, monumental issues before the end of 2021.
As we mentioned in the last Federal Flash, the Build Back Better Act is sitting in the Senate after House Democrats passed the legislation last month. The Senate parliamentarian is now reviewing the bill to ensure it meets the technical requirements of budget reconciliation, which only requires a majority vote. Optimists hope it will move before the December holidays, but only time will tell.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate passed a workaround measure that will allow Democrats to raise the nation’s debt ceiling without any Republican votes. With the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), this one-time break in the filibuster rules garnered enough Republican support to pass. Now, Democrats in both chambers will take a separate vote to raise the debt limit and avert an economic catastrophe.
In happier news from Capitol Hill, the Senate confirmed Jessica Rosenworcel as the new chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As our President and CEO, Deb Delisle said, [QUOTE] “Chair Rosenworcel is a true champion for closing the homework gap — a term she coined — and ensuring that the nearly 17 million children without home internet service don’t fall behind their more affluent classmates in school.” Rosenworcel, who has served as a Commissioner since 2012, will be the first woman in this leadership role.
Another FCC nominee, Gigi Sohn, faces steep opposition from Republican Senators over past posts on her personal Twitter account. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) even brought posters featuring her tweets to her confirmation hearing. Despite these hurdles, Democrats could still clear the nomination if their caucus remains united. Until her nomination is confirmed, the FCC is left with two Republican-appointed Commissioners and two appointed by Democrats.
The FCC is tasked with moving President Biden’s broadband agenda forward. To close the digital divide and determine how to best use the $42 billion provided in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the Commissioners must first identify broadband dead zones around the country. However, the FCC’s current maps underestimate need. For example, in one Mississippi county the estimates are off by 80%. This could drastically delay getting households connected to high-speed internet. We’ll keep you posted.
With the emergence of the omicron variant, the administration is also encouraging parents to vaccinate their children against COVID-19. First Lady Jill Biden has been on the road promoting the vaccine as “the best way” to protect children against the virus. According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, over four million 5- to 11-year-olds and 15 million adolescents have already received at least one dose of the vaccine. Further, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just approved booster shots for 16- and 17-year-olds. The CDC is expected to release new school guidance in the coming weeks.
Federal Student Aid chief Richard Cordray urged states to make completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, a requirement for high school graduation. FAFSA completion rates have dropped dramatically during the pandemic, with more than a quarter million fewer forms completed. According to Cordray, early FAFSA data this year shows that the trend is continuing. In addition, college enrollment overall is down – especially for low-income students, Black and Native American students, and, for the first time in years, Latinx students. Seven states already require FAFSA completion for high school graduation, and the Department is developing a toolkit for states interested in adopting the approach.
Speaking of student aid, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) sent a letter to President Biden urging him to extend the pause on student loan payments, interest, and collections until employment rebounds to pre-pandemic levels. The letter also encourages President Biden to consider cancelling up to $50,000 in student debt for all borrowers.
In addition, Senators Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) led a dozen Democratic Senators in penning their own letter to the administration recommending that interest rates remain at 0% even if payments resume on February 1. Advocacy groups are also putting pressure on the White House as a recent survey found that most borrowers, even those who are fully employed, are not financially secure enough to be prepared for payments to resume. Since the burden of student debt disproportionately affects Black and Latinx households, advocates fear the pending restart of loan payments would have a detrimental effect on the communities most affected by the pandemic. We’ll keep you updated on any changes.
Finally, November ended tragically with a deadly school shooting at Oxford High School outside Detroit, Michigan. A 15-year-old student killed four classmates and wounded six other students and a teacher in the deadliest school shooting since May 2018. All4Ed supports every student and American across the country fighting for common-sense measures to keep our nation’s school children safe.
Yet, once again, local, state, and federal leaders are struggling to take action to protect students from guns in schools. Let’s hear from Michigan state senator, Mallory McMorrow, as she argued for stricter gun laws.
Why are children’s lives worth less than guns? Indeed.
This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the December 13, 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.
Anne Hyslop is director of policy development and Ziyu Zhou is policy analyst at All4Ed.