It’s been another busy week on Capitol Hill. Senate Democrats passed a $3.5 trillion budget resolution that will expand public education by four years and make other critical investments in schools. Shortly before that, the Senate also passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes funding for broadband access. We’ll also cover the Biden administration’s efforts to support safe school reopening and new guidance from the Department of Education on Maintenance of Equity as they continue to approve and monitor state plans to spend the American Rescue Plan Act funds.
FY2022 Budget Resolution
Last week, Senate Democrats passed a budget resolution instructing committees to develop a $3.5 trillion spending package covering a wide range of economic and domestic policy goals. Once finalized, all committee proposals will be combined into a reconciliation bill that the Senate can pass by a majority vote, instead of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
The budget resolution includes several critical education initiatives. Importantly, it builds on President Biden’s American Families Plan to expand public education by four years. As we discussed on a previous Federal Flash, the plan would invest hundreds of millions of dollars to create universal pre-K for all three-and four-year-olds. In addition, the Senate HELP Committee will develop a plan to provide free community college for two years through a new state-federal partnership. All4Ed, along with other education and civil rights organizations, urge the HELP Committee to include debt-free college pathways for students who take college courses while in high school. Otherwise, the legislation may unintentionally discourage students from participating in dual enrollment programs that could cost money, while two years of community college would be free. As our President and CEO Deborah Delisle put it, “As we expand community college, we must ensure college completion—not just enrollment—remains the goal.”
The reconciliation bill also extends the child tax credit passed as part of the American Rescue Plan, increases the maximum Pell Grant award, provides funding for HBCUs and other minority serving institutions (MSIs), and invests in school infrastructure. As part of the infrastructure investments, we hope the Senate will include continued funding for the Emergency Connectivity Fund to increase high-speed internet access. As we’ve covered in prior episodes, this program is critical to addressing learning loss and closing the Homework Gap.
Senate Committees have until September 15th to write their respective portions of the bill, and all 50 Democratic Senators will need to support the reconciliate package for it to pass and be sent to the House of Representatives.
Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill
Just before Senators began voting on amendments to the budget resolution, they passed a bipartisan, $1 trillion infrastructure bill, with 19 Republicans joining the 50 Democrats in support. Although the bill focuses on “hard infrastructure,” like roads and bridges, it nevertheless provides needed investments in education. This includes $15 billion to remove lead pipes from schools and ensure students have clean drinking water and $5 billion to upgrade school buses to clean energy models.
The bill makes even larger investments in broadband. First, there’s $42 billion to expand high-speed internet to areas without connectivity. States will receive funding based on the scope of the digital divide, with funds set-aside for high-cost areas. The bill also addresses broadband affordability by expanding the Emergency Broadband Benefit by $14 billion and opening it to those earning up to 200% of the federal poverty line. As a reminder, the program, first funded in last December’s COVID relief package, provides eligible households with discounts in purchasing broadband services, as well as a computer or tablet. Finally, the bill includes nearly $3 billion for states to develop digital equity plans and promote digital literacy, as well as $2 billion to increase connectivity on tribal lands.
The infrastructure bill now heads to the House. Speaker Pelosi has indicated they won’t take up the infrastructure bill until the Senate passes the budget reconciliation package. However, nine moderate House Democrats have said they will not vote for the budget resolution until the infrastructure bill passes and is signed into law. This is significant because the Democratic majority in the House is too thin to pass budget resolution without their support. Needless to say, the path forward for these bills is uncertain.
Efforts to Support Safe School Reopening
It’s mid-August, which means students and teachers are beginning to return to school throughout the country. As schools reopen amid a COVID resurgence due to the Delta variant, the CDC updated its guidance to again recommend universal indoor masking for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC further recommends that fully vaccinated individuals who may have interacted with a potentially exposed person be tested even if they are asymptomatic. As states and districts across the country make decisions about COVID-19 safety protocols as part of their reopening plans, some, like California, are requiring vaccines for teachers—a policy supported by the nation’s largest teacher’s union, the NEA.
To support school reopening, the U.S. Department of Education published a “Return to School Roadmap” to provide guidance to schools on implementing the CDC’s guidance on reopening schools safely. The guide also describes how schools can use federal funds to support reopening. Meanwhile, the Biden Administration and Secretary Cardona continue to encourage teachers, staff, and all eligible students to get vaccinated for COVID-19 before “back to school.”
Guidance on Maintenance of Equity Requirements
Finally, the Department of Education issued new guidance on the Maintenance of Equity requirement for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, program under the American Rescue Plan (ARP). As we discussed on a previous Federal Flash, Maintenance of Equity guards against disproportionate budget cuts in high-poverty schools and districts. The guidance clarifies that a school district may be exempt from the provision in FY2022 if it has not, and will not, experience a reduction in total state and local per pupil funding.
Relatedly, the Department has now approved ARP plans for 27 states and Washington, D.C. Once approved, states receive their remaining ESSER funding from the American Rescue Plan. To monitor and track how states made use of ESSER funds, the Department is seeking public comments on data collection regarding ESSER implementation, including the Maintenance of Equity requirement. Comments are due at this link by August 31st.
This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the August 16 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 Ziyu Zhou is a policy analyst at All4Ed.