Research and Data Specialist
Congress leaves Build Back Better on the backburner as they prepare for a Supreme Court nomination, but looming deadlines may force them to move on FY2022 appropriations or face a government shutdown. House Democrats also unveiled the America Competes Bill, which includes provisions to expand STEM pathways, the Supreme Court takes up an affirmative action case that could reshape race-conscious admissions policies, and the U.S. Department of Education considers public comments on its efforts to advance educational equity through key data collections and accountability measures. Meanwhile, Secretary Cardona shared his vision for education in a major speech, outlining the Biden administration’s priorities moving forward.
Congress moves forward a competitiveness bill that expands college STEM pathways but leaves both Build Back Better and the fiscal year’s budget to languish. Plus, diversity in higher education is top of mind for Congress and the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Department of Education moves forward on key guidance, regulation, and oversight as Secretary Cardona shared his vision of education in a major speech.
Build Back Better
Congress remains at an impasse on several efforts. Build Back Better, the Biden administration’s social spending bill received what may have been its final blow in December when Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) pulled his support of the bill. Now, we await Congress to either move on the full suite of spending initiatives or only a portion of the effort, like new funding for early childhood education. But the path forward isn’t clear. Just this week, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) told reporters he felt Democrats could find common ground, but moments later, one of the reporters asked Senator Manchin for comment:
“What Build Back Better Bill? There is no… I mean, I don’t know what y’all are talking about…. “No, no, no, no. It’s dead.”
When asked to clarify his comments, Manchin said that he meant that the big package is gone, but he would consider a smaller version. We’ll keep you posted if things change, but don’t expect any progress any time soon.
Meanwhile, the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 budget remains in the crosshairs. Although the fiscal year started October 1, Congress failed to agree on spending levels and kicked the can, passing two continuing resolutions to keep the government open through February 18 and maintain last year’s funding levels. This week, the so-called “four corners,” or Congress’ top four appropriators, met to continue budget negotiations. However, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee cast doubt on Congress’ ability to come to an agreement before the deadline.
Last week, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement, giving President Biden his first opportunity to shape the high court. During the campaign, President Biden pledged to nominate the first Black female Supreme Court justice. Whoever he nominates, Senators will soon have to hold hearings and cast their votes over Breyer’s replacement. One high-profile case the new justice will decide is an affirmative action suit against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. With six conservative judges on the Court even after President Biden’s appointee joins, the future of race-conscious college admissions policies is very much in doubt. We’ll keep you updated on the case and its implications for diversity in higher education.
Fair College Admissions for Students
In related news, Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced the Fair College Admissions for Students Act, which would prohibit colleges and universities participating in the federal student aid program from giving admissions preference to students with legacy or donor status. These policies disproportionately benefit white, wealthy students. Eliminating them would be an important step in reducing college access barriers for low-income, racial minority, and first-generation college students.
America Competes Act
Also on Capitol Hill, the House unveiled the America Competes Act. This is their version of the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), a bipartisan bill aimed at increasing the United States’ technological competitiveness with China. Among other strategies, it provides funding for partnerships between state departments of education, school districts and systems of higher education to expand college pathways in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). These pathways would include at least 12 transferable postsecondary credits for high school students and support work-based learning, dual enrollment, and early college high school programs that lead to STEM credentials. We believe that dual enrollment and early college high school programs have helped young people, especially those from historically marginalized communities, reach and stay in college. We hope Congressional leaders will move quickly to pass the legislation and send it for President Biden’s signature.
Department of Education
Over at the Department of Education, agency leaders have requested public comments on multiple issues. First, the Department proposed requirements for monitoring district compliance with Maintenance of Equity in the American Rescue Plan Act. We joined six of our national partners to support the agency’s approach, as the data it collects will provide transparency regarding district budgets and ensure that high-need schools are not experiencing disproportionate staffing or funding cuts.
Second, the Department requested feedback on new school accountability guidance under the Every Student Succeeds Act. These systems play a critical role in directing extra funding and supports to the schools and students that need them the most—and this fall will be the first opportunity for many states to update their systems to account for the pandemic’s toll on student learning and well-being. We joined nearly sixty national and state organizations to support the Department’s efforts.
And third, the Department is still accepting public comments on the Civil Rights Data Collection, or CRDC, for the 2021-22 school year. Submit your comments by February 11 at the link below.
Cardona’s Vision for Education
Finally, on January 27th, Secretary Cardona delivered a major speech outlining the administration’s education priorities, including:
Let’s listen to his vision for reimagining education systems to address the persistent inequities.
Watch the Full Speech Here
Secretary Cardona also highlighted the pandemic response, as school leaders continue to face enormous challenges keeping students and staff safe—and schools open—as cases surge. But there’s some good news. Pfizer has formally asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to authorize the COVID-19 vaccine for children under 5. The FDA’s independent panel of experts will meet mid-month to consider the data and make their recommendations. Authorization would help make schools and childcare safer for young children and curb the spread of the virus that has forced shutdowns and extended absences for countless students as they either recover from the virus or quarantine after exposure.
That’s all for today. For an alert when the next Federal Flash is available, sign up on our website at all4ed.org/FlashSignup. Thanks for watching!
This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the February 4, 2022 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.
Ziyu Zhou is policy analyst and Rebeca Shackleford is director of federal government relations at All4Ed.