Astrologers tell us the planets are going wild. It sure seemed like it this week!
1. Tension Mounts on Capitol Hill
The aftermath of the insurrection in the Capitol on January 6 continues to increase tension in Congress. The Department of Homeland Security issued a terrorism alert noting that anti-government extremists have been fueled by “perceived grievances fueled by false narratives.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) reflected that her colleagues have faced death threats and 30 have asked for additional personal security. Some Republican House Members have attempted to bring guns into the Capitol. Some Democrats are refusing to be in the same room with some Republican Members. “The enemy is within the House of Representatives,” she said in a press conference. The National Guard continues to surround the Capitol, as does a security fence – both likely to remain through at least March.
Republicans appointed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) to the Committee on Education and Labor, sparking outrage from Democrats. During her campaign she posted a photo of herself holding a gun saying she wanted to go on “offense” against the progressive squad and expressing support for the execution of top Democrats, including Speaker Pelosi. Greene has been seen on videos harassing Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg and challenging his views on gun control. Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor Bobby Scott (D-VA) said “House Republicans have appointed someone to this Committee who claimed that the killing of 14 students and three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was staged…Kevin McCarthy must explain how someone with this background represents the Republican party on education issues… He is sending a clear message to students, parents, and educators about the views of the Republican party.”
President Trump continues to exert leadership over the Republican Party, as evidenced by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s trip to Mar A Lago this week. The convening was reported as an early strategy session on how Republicans could retake the House in 2022. Internal divisions among the Republican party are on full display as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) traveled to Wyoming to lead a pro-Trump rally decrying Rep. Liz Cheney’s (R-WY) vote to impeach President Trump.
The House impeachment managers formally triggered the start of the former President’s second impeachment trial delivering the charge against Trump to the Senate. Although the Senate tabled an effort by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to force a vote on the constitutionality of Trump’s impeachment trial , the results of the vote cast doubt on the likelihood of conviction, with only 5 Republicans voting to move ahead. At least 17 Republicans would need to join all 50 Democrats in order to convict former President Trump. The trial will likely begin February 9 and is anticipated to last only a few days. The Capitol complex remains on high alert for more potential violence.
Despite this backdrop, the new President continues to forge ahead and Congressional leaders begin to move a legislative agenda.
2. Biden’s Executive Action and Political Appointments
This week President Biden continued with his executive action blitz- signing a series of orders, actions, and memorandums aimed at rapidly addressing the coronavirus pandemic and dismantling many of the former administration’s policies. Among the orders signed to date are several of keen interest to educators, including the restoration of DACA, the repeal of the Trump order on race and stereotyping, an extension of the pause on student loan collection through September and an order requiring the Department of Education to issue guidance on school re-openings during the pandemic.
Almost a week after being sworn in, President Biden is seeing his Cabinet start to come together. This week the Senate confirmed Antony Blinken, as Secretary of State, Janet Yellen,as Secretary of the Treasury, Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense, and Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence — all with bipartisan votes. Biden awaits confirmation of numerous key Cabinet nominees to lead important agencies — including Justice, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, the CIA, and Education.
The Senate HELP Committee has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing for Dr. Miguel Cardona to be Secretary of Education. However, Dr. Cardona met with Connecticut Public radio on Monday for an interview discussing the priorities of this Administration and the future for the Department of Education should he be confirmed. In the meantime, President Biden has named Philip Rosenfelt as Acting Secretary of Education. Rosenfelt is Deputy General Counsel in the Office of General Counsel at the Department and served as Acting Secretary during the Obama-Trump transition.
A number of political appointees with education responsibilities who do not need Senate confirmation have been announced. It appears that the Biden team is focusing on Cabinet confirmation before moving to Assistant Secretary level positions. In addition, Kathy Valle — formerly education policy director for Chairman Bobby Scott of the House Committee on Education and Labor — has been named to oversee the higher education portfolio in the White House’s Domestic Policy Council.
3. COVID Relief Bill Proceeds; School Re-openings a Hot Topic
Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion relief package has a strong emphasis on reopening schools for a majority of K-8 students in his first 100 days in office. Administration officials are suggesting the appropriation of $170 billion for schools, supplemented by additional state and local funds. About $130 billion of that would go toward reopening, while much of the rest of the money would go to help colleges dealing with the shift to distance learning and other pandemic-tied problems.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned that Democrats were willing to go at it alone on the next relief package. Schumer, said that it was the preference of Democrats to work with Republicans, but that if GOP senators wanted to move too slowly, or go smaller than Democrats think necessary, they will move ahead without GOP support. To pass the bill without Republican support, Democrats will need to use reconciliation, a budget process that allows a bill to pass with only 51 votes, rather than the 61 that is generally required. But first Democrats must pave the way by passing a budget resolution that provides instructions to committees for drafting legislation. This could happen as soon as next week. Congress faces a deadline of March 14, when the current round of jobless benefits begins to expire.
School reopening continues to be a controversial topic in relation to COVID relief. Teachers’ unions have suggested that officials have not done enough to keep their members safe and should continue with remote learning until such measures are put in place. However, on Tuesday the CDC weighed in with a call for returning children to classrooms as soon as possible, noting the “preponderance of available evidence” indicates that in-person instruction can be carried out safely as long as mask-wearing and social distancing are maintained. Biden has indicated that he is not blaming teachers and their unions for schools remaining closed, stating that reopening is “complicated,” particularly in larger urban areas.
House Democrats on Thursday introduced three bills that they would like to see added to the COVID package. The bills are the “Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act,” the “Save Education Jobs Act” and the “Learning Recovery Act of 2021.” Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott said “The package of bills introduced today reflects our commitment to helping students, educators, and parents overcome the pandemic, reopen our schools, and finally access a quality, public education.” A report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that states could experience a combined $555 billion budget shortfall between fiscal years 2020 to 2022. Citing a teachers’ union report, the Committee noted that up to 1.9 million education jobs could be lost over the same timeframe. All together, the three bills address school infrastructure, learning loss, preventing education layoffs, expanding access to high-speed broadband for public schools, and requiring states to develop public databases on the condition of their public school facilities
4. What do the First Lady and Second Gentleman Have in Common?
Education interests and commitments rest in the heart of the White House. We have known that First Lady Dr. Biden, will continue to teach at Northern Virginia Community College, where she taught full-time during her two terms as second lady. But joining her in teaching is Second Gentleman, Douglas Emhoff, who will join the Georgetown University Law Center faculty as a distinguished visitor from practice to teach an entertainment law course. In another first, this will be the first time the spouses of both the President and Vice President have held jobs outside of their official duties in their respective White House roles.
5. New Resources for Educators
- K -12 Dive looked at five ways schools are addressing pandemic-induced mental health issues with many schools strengthening student-parent-school relationships and improving mental health response coordination in response to Covid-19’s toll on both students and staff.
- This week’s Education Week Spotlight article addresses beating the COVID slide — how educators are addressing learning loss due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
- A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office highlights concerns about conflicts of interest in transactions through which for-profit colleges become nonprofit institutions. The GAO counted 59 such conversions between January 2011 and August 2020. In about a third of those, for-profit college officials were “insiders,” meaning they had a relationship with the nonprofit purchasing entity that could influence its financial decisions.
- Every Learner Everywhere reports on a recent survey of more than 850 instructors teaching introductory courses in colleges. Survey respondents are concerned that the pandemic is widening gaps in student success and equity. The instructors, who represent more than 600 two- and four-year colleges, say course drops or withdrawal rates increased this fall, and more so at schools with larger shares of students eligible to receive Pell Grants.
Much thanks to Dr. Kaitlyn Brennan for her contribution to this week’s Washington Update.
Once again quoting Lester Holt, “Take care of yourselves and each other.” Until next week!
Let us know what you are thinking on twitter @janewestdc @brennan_kait
Jane E. West Ph.D.
Education Policy Consultant