As we begin the new year with hope for brighter days ahead, the congressional outlook has remained much the same as last year. This week the House is not in session, but the Senate is. Several members faced delays making their way back to Capitol Hill after the holiday break in the midst of the first DC snow storm of the new year. The travel delays coupled with the memorializing of former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, and marking the anniversary of January 6th filled much of the week on the Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) sent a letter to his colleagues to lay out priorities for the first weeks of this session. In terms of public action, it appears the Senate is poised to address voting rights first before shifting to FY22 appropriations or the Build Back Better Act. But, rest assured, members of Congress and their staff are continuing to work hard behind the scenes on these critical pieces of legislation as well- both of which could include historic investments in education.
1. Second Session of the 117th Congress Begins
Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 Appropriations
In December, lawmakers in Congress rallied to unite behind a deal that keeps the government funded at its FY21 levels through February 18th— a Continuing Resolution (CR). The temporary patch keeps the government open, but can result in federal agencies delaying grant competitions and disbursement of funds. In a typical year an extended CR may have relatively little impact on education programs, but this year was far from typical. Last summer the House passed its FY 22 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill with a historic 41% increase for the Department of Education, as well as increases for education programs in other agencies. The figurative ball then went to the Senate’s court where in the fall, the Senate Appropriations Committee released a draft bill that had still historic but smaller education funding increases. With a full plate of “must-do’s” in December, there was no further movement to enact FY22 funding before the break. As it currently stands, it appears that an agreement could be reached sometime in February to provide more defense funding than either the House or Senate bill had initially proposed with the hope of getting enough votes to avoid a full year CR. To offset, cuts will need to be made to non-defense funding, which includes education investments. Advocates will continue to keep a close eye on all moving parts and remain hopeful that even with such a cut, we will still see historic increases for education funding as FY22 crosses the finish line.
Build Back Better Act
Just before Congress left for the holiday break, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) said he would not support the Senate’s version of the $1.7 billion social spending bill which includes massive investments in education, from childcare, to preschool, to college affordability, to the educator pipeline. The Senator cited concerns about the cost of continuing all the bill’s provisions for ten years. As currently drafted, many provisions – including education provisions – end after several years of funding. Some analysts suggest that Senate leaders will salvage some parts of the reconciliation bill and pass something significantly smaller than the House passed version sometime in February. As you will recall, all 50 Senate Democrats must vote in favor of the legislation in order for it to pass. Should Congressional leadership and the White House garner the support of all Democrats, the bill will then go back to the House for final approval before it goes to the President to sign into law. This means that as advocates, we must to continue to urge Congress to keep education investments in the reconciliation bill.
Below is a sample tweet you can use to urge your members of Congress to support education investments in FY22 and in the Build Back Better Act:
“The education investments in the Build Back Better Act and FY22 are vital for our future. As negotiations continue, urge your Senators and Representative to keep education investments in the bill.”
2. Student Loan Payment Pause Extended
Just before Congress left for the Christmas break, the Biden-Harris Administration extended the student loan payment pause through May 1st as another wave of Covid-19 cases swept the nation. Top Democratic leaders have been vocal in urging President Biden to use executive authority to not only extend the moratorium on loans but to cancel all outstanding debt for borrowers. On the campaign trail, President Biden promised to cancel $10,000 of student debt per borrower. The Administration has yet to act on that promise, but has forgiven $12.7 billion during the pandemic for public service workers and borrowers with disabilities.
In October, the Department of Education announced an overhaul to the controversial Public Student Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). The Department now offers a time-limited waiver so that student borrowers can count payments from all federal loan programs or repayment plans toward forgiveness. This includes loan types and payment plans that were not previously eligible. The Department is also exploring opportunities to automate PSLF eligibility, give borrowers a way to get errors corrected, and make it easier for members of the military to get credit toward forgiveness while they serve.
Republican Congressional leaders, notably Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), ranking member of the Senate HELP committee, and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), ranking member of the House Education and Labor committee, have questioned such moves. This week, Sen. Burr and Rep. Foxx sent a letter to Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona asking him to clarify the department’s statutory basis for reforming the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
“When announcing these changes, the Department claimed a liberal reading of a statute to find the executive authority to move forward,” Burr and Foxx wrote. “In light of this overtly political reading of the statute, we requested the production of various documents to understand the Department’s rationale for its decision and the supposed authority to change unilaterally statutory requirements prescribed by Congress.
3. Schools Across the Nation Grapple with Rising Covid-19 Cases and Staffing Shortages
On Wednesday, the Chicago Teachers Union voted that staff should not report to school buildings — a move that prompted the city’s school officials to cancel both in-person and remote instruction. The union, which represents over 21,000 teachers said that the city’s leaders “have yet to provide safety for the overwhelming majority of schools” and that its members intend to work remotely until their concerns are sufficiently addressed.
The White House for their part said that all school districts can and should have the resources necessary to safely continuing operating for face-to-face instruction. During an interview this week, Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona echoed the Administration’s position stating:
“We have better tools now. Children ages 5 and up are eligible for vaccine. And we saw the impact that students had learning remotely or not being able to attend school,” he said. “We can do better. We have the tools available; the resources are there. And yes, it’s a challenge, and I have to commend educators and leaders across the country. But we – our students deserve the opportunity to learn in person, and we have the tools to keep our schools safe for in-person learning for our students…”
Following the same messaging, National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in an interview that school districts have “the strategies and the tools in place” to keep students and educators safe thanks to the American Rescue Plan. If schools have “layered mitigation strategies,” including vaccinations, testing, distancing, cleaning surfaces and ventilation, “we can keep our students and educators safe,” Pringle said.
Beyond mitigation strategies, school districts across the country are grappling with staffing shortages that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. A significant federal investment to address the dire shortage of educators and specialized instructional support personnel is needed more now than perhaps ever before.
4. New Resources for Educators
- Department of Education released a new FAQ focused on allowable uses of ESSER and GEER funds by State educational agencies (SEAs) and local educational agencies (LEAs). This FAQ is intended to supplement the questions in the ESSER and GEER use of funds guidance published in May 2021. The Department specifically notes that such funds can be used to address staffing shortages.
- Future-Ed released an analysis on how districts across the country are using their federal Covid relief money with patterns emerging geographically across the nation.
- Hechinger Report issued a brief highlighting the lack of diversity across the field of education and noting that without action the trend is expected to only get worse.
In closing, I would like to recognize my incredible mentor Dr. Jane West who spearheaded Washington Update for the past 7 years. Having the opportunity to learn from and work with Jane has been the chance of a lifetime. I look forward to continuing to answer the motivating question that has served as the foundation for each Washington Update since its inception: “What happened this week in relation to education policy, and what difference does it make for my work?”
Wishing you all a peaceful weekend.
See you on twitter @brennan_kait