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Is Free Community College on the Chopping Block?

Congress remains at a standstill over budget reconciliation, with a looming December deadline to make key decisions to keep the government open and funded. Meanwhile, the Senate released an education appropriations bill with some key differences from versions offered by President Biden’s and the House , while still significantly increasing education funding. Finally, an update on new faces at the Department of Education as the agency tackles student loan debt and faces sobering new NAEP data.

Build Back Better Act & Infrastructure

In our last Federal Flash, we discussed two major bills stalled in Congress, the Build Back Better Act—the Democrats’ reconciliation bill that includes many of President Biden’s signature priorities—and a bipartisan infrastructure bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) set a new deadline of October 31st for votes on both bills, but that won’t happen without agreement on the overall spending level for the Build Back Better Act.

Democrats from both chambers met at the White House this week, and it appeared that they were nearing an agreement around $2 trillion over ten years—a far cry from the $3.5 trillion in the House proposal. Once Democrats reach consensus, they will have to make cuts to align with the new topline number, whether shrinking the size or timeline for investments in new programs or cutting some proposed programs altogether. Unfortunately, given comments from key negotiators, we’re concerned that the free community college provision we’ve supported may be one of the first on the chopping block.

The Debt Limit

It’s not entirely bad news, though. In our last update, we were on the precipice of a fiscal cliff. But on October 14th, President Biden signed a bill to increase the country’s borrowing limit through early December.

The short-term measure, supported only by Democrats, pushes the edge of the cliff a little further back, as both the debt limit increase and the continuing resolution keeping the government funded will expire December 3rd. How the Senate will break the stalemate is unclear, as Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) oppose tackling the debt ceiling without bipartisan support, and Republican Senators remain unwilling to support Democrats’ proposals.

Senate Appropriations Bill

Also on Capitol Hill, the Senate Appropriations Committee released the remaining fiscal year (FY) 2022 appropriations bills, including education. Overall, the Senate bill provides a 35% increase over FY 2021 spending levels for the Department of Education, compared to the 41% increase proposed by both the President and the House.

Most of the roughly $4.4 billion difference comes from the Senate proposing a relatively smaller $15.5 billion increase to the Title I program, instead of nearly $20 billion. Senators also cut a $1 billion increase for mental health grants. Still, the Senate proposal would amount to an unprecedented investment in education for the next fiscal year, double the size of Title I, and provide many critical supports for students, schools, and districts across the country.

Some of these supports include a new $50 million program for state grants to enhance resource equity, a $50 million increase in competitive grants to improve the quality, validity and reliability of state assessment systems, and a new middle and high school Career and Technical Education (CTE) innovation program.

However, the Senate is unlikely to mark up any of the bills before negotiating with the House, and Senate Republicans are demanding equal increases for both defense and non-defense funding. Moreover, Congress may not pass an education budget bill at all, and instead pass a long-term continuing resolution due to conflicting partisan agendas, limited time, and other priorities like the Build Back Better Act and the debt ceiling. We’ll keep you posted.

2020 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Scores

The nation’s teenagers are less proficient in math and reading than they were a decade ago—and the pandemic has nothing to do with it. For the first time since the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) began tracking academic achievement in the 1970s, scores for 13-year-olds dropped in its long-term trends study. Among 9-year-olds, there was no change since 2012.

The test results, administered to nearly 34,000 students before the pandemic disrupted the 2019-2020 school year, are deeply concerning, with a three-point decline in reading and a steeper, five-point decline in math among middle school students.

While the overall picture isn’t pretty, widening gaps between student groups are even more alarming. Scores for the lowest-performing students—those in the 10th percentile—dropped in both age groups and subjects, while there were no significant changes among the highest-performing students. Further, math results for Black and Latinx 13-year-olds fell by eight points and four points, respectively.

Keep in mind: the pandemic has likely only served to deepen these divides, especially since the same student groups that saw the greatest declines in NAEP scores were also disproportionately affected by COVID. Education leaders must now grapple with addressing the growing needs highlighted by these results—and prepare for forthcoming NAEP data that will better capture learning loss due to the pandemic.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Shifting gears, on October 6th, the Department of Education announced an overhaul of public service loan forgiveness, including a limited waiver to count all prior payments made by borrowers, regardless of whether they had the right type of loan. This temporary opportunity will give borrowers credit for payments that would not have counted previously, simplify the definition of a qualifying payment, make it easier for military service members and other federal employees to receive forgiveness, and review denied applications to correct past errors.

Though temporary, Secretary Cardona has committed to further reform and long-term solutions to make loan forgiveness more accessible. With loan payments set to resume in January after being on pause during the pandemic, student loan oversight and relief are sure to be major topics of conversation in the coming months.

New Education Officials

Finally, the Senate has confirmed several top Education Department officials, including Lisa Brown, former vice president and general counsel of Georgetown University, as general counsel and Gwen Graham, a former member of Congress, as assistant secretary for legislation and Congressional affairs.

Vice President Kamala Harris cast a tie-breaking vote to confirm Catherine Lhamon as assistant secretary for civil rights, a role she held previously in the Obama administration. Lhamon faced significant opposition from Republicans, particularly over her commitments to enforce federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on race and gender.

In addition, the Senate confirmed Roberto Rodríguez, former Board Member of the Alliance for Excellent Education, as assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy development. Rodríguez has a long history of centering educational equity in and outside of government, having held positions with national civil rights organizations and senior roles in both the Senate and White House. Upon his confirmation, our President and CEO, Deborah Delisle, called Rodríguez “a true champion of America’s youth.”


This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the October 22, 2021 episode of Federal Flash, All4Ed’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. The video version is embedded above. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email hello@all4ed.org.

Ziyu Zhou is a policy analyst and Rebeca Shackleford is director of federal government relations at the All4Ed.

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Ziyu Zhou

Policy Analyst

Meet Ziyu

Rebeca Shackleford

Director of Federal Government Relations

Meet Rebeca