Washington Update, June 16, 2023

Dear Colleagues:

Following the passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which raises the debt ceiling and limits federal funding for the next two years, Members of Congress, their staff, and education advocates alike have shifted their focus towards an FY 2024 spending bill. House Appropriations Committee chair Kay Granger (R-TX) announced on Monday that the Committee will continue to produce FY 2024 funding bills with new funding capped at the FY 2022 level, which is $119 billion below the FY 2024 discretionary level set in law by the debt limit deal. The level for the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee is $60 billion or 29% below its FY 2023 level of $207 billion in discretionary funding. Your voices and advocacy efforts will be critical as we move toward an FY2024 spending bill.

1. President Biden Vetoes Effort to Shut Down $20,000 in Student Loan Forgiveness for Millions of Americans + Members of HELP Committee Release a Series of Bills on College Affordability and Student Debt  

Last week, President Biden vetoed a Republican- led piece of legislation that would have cancelled his plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student debt for millions of Americans. While Republicans led on the bill, a handful of moderate Democrats joined their colleagues across the aisle to nullify the Biden-Harris Administration’s student debt relief program- citing the plan as too costly for tax payers and unfair to Americans who did not attend college.

In a video message released on Wednesday, President Biden said:

“I’m not going to back down on my efforts to help tens of millions of working- and middle-class families…That’s why I’m going to veto this bill…I remain committed to continuing to make college affordable and providing this critical relief to borrowers as they work to recover from a once-in-a-century pandemic.”  

That said, even with President Biden vetoing the bill, the future of the plan remains to be seen. The Supreme Court is preparing to rule in the coming weeks whether to allow the Biden Administration to proceed with the program.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the Senate HELP Committee released a package of five bills to increase transparency about college costs and financial aid, streamline repayment options by providing one standard 10-year repayment plan and one income-driven option, and to limit loans for graduate students. You can read more about the Lowering Education Costs and Debt Act here.

On the same day that the package of bills was released by Senate HELP Republicans, Chairman of the HELP Committee Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced his College for All Act. This bill would guarantee tuition-free community college for all students and allow students from single households earning up to $125,000 a year, and married households earning up to $250,000 a year. If passed, the College for All Act would also:

  • Double the maximum Pell Grant award: $7,395 to $14,790 for the 2024-2025 school year for students enrolled at public and private non-profit colleges;
  • Establish a $10 billion grant program for states participating in the federal-state partnership to scale evidence-based practices and strategies;
  • Triple Federal TRIO funding from $1.191 billion in FY23 to $3 billion in FY24;
  • Double GEAR UP funding from $388 million in FY23 to $736 million in FY24; and
  • Double mandatory funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and other Minority-Serving institutions.

2. Live Interview with Jane West about Her New Book: Advocating for the Common Good: People, Politics, Process and Policy on Capitol Hill

Tune in next Wednesday June 21 from 9-10 AM ET to hear Jane’s radio interview.  Based in New York, the show is called The Ballot Box.  It is sponsored by the League of Women Voters.  You can hear it live here: WVOX.COM.  It will also be recorded and available a week or so after the show.

This is sure to be a lively event and a good way to get an overview of her book.

3. Registration is Open for the Special Education Legislative Summit Hosted by CEC and CASE 

Held in Washington, D.C., during July, the Special Education Legislative Summit (SELS) is an opportunity for educators from across the country to make a difference by advocating for change with Members of Congress. Come together with fellow educators and leaders in the field to learn more about advocacy and meet with your representatives to share what’s really happening in the field of special education. Hill visits will take place in person on Tuesday, July 11th, subject to the in-person policies of Congressional offices. You can read more about SELS and register here.

4. In the States: Oklahoma State Officials Approved a Bid to Open the Country’s First Publicly Funded Religious Charter School 

Last week, the Oklahoma state officials approved a bid to open the country’s first publicly funded religious charter school. In a statement, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt praised the decision saying in part, “Oklahomans support religious liberty for all and support an increasingly innovative educational system that expands choice…Today, with the nation watching, our state showed that we will not stand for religious discrimination.”

The application for the Catholic-led bid was originally shot down in April- but the timing afforded church leaders the opportunity to address the state charter board members’ concerns and then refile a request before last week’s vote.  Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, in a statement said: “We are elated that the board agreed with our argument and application for the nation’s first religious charter school…Parents continue to demand more options for their kids, and we are committed to help provide them.”

However, several faith leaders, elected officials, and public school advocates have expressed significant concern, not only for this ruling’s impact across Oklahoma, but for the broader implications of such a landmark decision.

“It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families than the state establishing the nation’s first religious public charter school…This is a sea change for American democracy…In a country built on the principle of separation of church and state, public schools must never be allowed to become Sunday schools,” said Rachel Laser, Head of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond also expressed concern saying: “The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers…It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars. In doing so, these members have exposed themselves and the State to potential legal action that could be costly.”

The decision is all but certain to spark a number of lawsuits challenging the vote.

5. New Resources for Educators  

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend.

Until next time, see you on Twitter!