Senate Debates Funding for Re-opening Schools

Students wearing masks outside school building

This blog post is written by AACTE consultant Jane West and is intended to provide updated information. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

Action Expected in July on Next COVID Relief Bill: Education in the Crosshairs

Beginning next week, we expect to see the Senate take up the next COVID relief bill.  The House has passed their version of the bill and Senate Democrats have introduced their version of the bill, so the next move is up Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).  His bill may be unveiled next week.

Education has become a high profile and contentious matter for this bill, as the president has determined that the economy cannot move forward unless schools are fully open in person so that parents and college employees (and workers in related businesses) can return to work in person. Multiple agendas are woven through this debate, which will become even more prominent as decisions are made about whether to apply conditions to any further COVID relief funding for education. 

The Trump Administration encountered a setback this week as their proposal to deport over 1 million international college students—unless they were in class in person full time—was blocked by the court. Harvard and MIT brought the case and big players in the business community Chamber of Commerce, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft—joined other advocates bucking the Trump proposal. While international students and higher education institutions heaved a sign of relief, that may be only temporary. A new FAQ issued on Wednesday noted that any new international students who have not yet arrived in the United States should stay in their home country. However, some new students may already be in the United States. Whether or not the previous guidance about “in person only” applies to them is unclear. There will surely be more to come on this front.

The Trump Administration continues its offensive to force K-12 schools to fully open in person.  In a White House briefing this week, Kayleigh McEnany, press secretary for the President, said:

“The president has said unmistakeably that he wants schools to open—and I was just in the Oval talking to him about that and when he says open he means in full, kids being able to attend each and every day at their school. The science should not stand in the way of this.” 

Earlier in the week, President Trump said “Schools should be opened. Kids want to go to school.  You’re losing a lot of lives by keeping things closed.” 

The pushback has been loud and pervasive:

“AACTE strongly opposes President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s efforts to force schools and universities to reopen prematurely … Federal funds should not be used as leverage to force schools and universities to provide in-person classes amidst the current surge of the coronavirus.”  Lynn Gangone, president and CEO, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education

“It is also critical that Congress in no way attach incentives or conditions on federal funds for the physical reopening of schools or create voucher programs or other mechanisms to funnel public dollars to private schools in the next COVID-19 relief package.”  Leslie Boggs, president, National PTA.

While school districts are still developing their plans for the fall, several large districts have announced that they will be totally online, including Los Angeles, San Diego, DeKalb, GA and Prince George’s County, MD.  In fact, Prince George’s County has indicated it will not consider reopening in person until January, 2021.  A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll of voters found that 65% reject the president’s threat to cut federal funding for schools that don’t reopen in person. A Quinnipiac Poll released Wednesday found that only 31% of respondents think it is safe to send students back to school in the fall; 62% think it is not safe. Only 29% approve of Trump’s position on reopening schools.

A National Academies of Sciences report recommends that schools prioritize reopening in the fall while weighing risks and benefits. They note that health, equity, and communities should be primary concerns. Another large reopening concern is the lack of staff capacity to move forward. Thousands of educators have already been laid off and more layoffs are expected.

A recent report by the Learning Policy Institute indicates that it could cost between $295 and $370 billion to make sure that schools are made whole—shielded from budget cuts and funded at the level needed to operate safely and effectively. The CARES Act included $13 billion for elementary and secondary schools and the Senate Democratic proposal for the next bill includes $175 billion for k-12. Sen. McConnell, who will be running the debate in the Senate, has indicated that education funding in the next bill may be in the $50 billion to $100 billion range for K-12 and the $20 billion to $30 billion range for higher education. There appears to be bipartisan agreement that education needs additional funds, but how much that will be and what sort of strings will be attached remains to be seen. Sec. DeVos has indicated that she would like to see her voucher proposal, Education Freedom Scholarships, included in the package. 

Reformers v. Unions Spar over Biden Education Platform

This week the Democratic National Committee platform drafting committee met to discuss recommendations from the Biden-Sanders unity task forces. The heads of both teachers’ unions were on those task forces. Long standing ruptures between educators and reformers have become apparent in the position on charter schools and accountability. In a statement, Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, noted that some of the recommendations would exacerbate inequities. The three areas of concern highlighted are preserving assessments and accountability under ESSA, funding charter schools, and committing to diversity in higher education. 

President Trump has taken up the mantle on charter schools writing:

“The Biden-Sanders unity plan takes a sledgehammer to charter schools, punishing students for their zip codes. No one will be SAFE in Joe Biden’s America!”

In addition, the Trump campaign said the Biden-Sanders plan would seek to “abolish educational standards” by proposing to eliminate high stakes testing. 

Read the full Washington Update on my website for more information and remember to follow me on Twitter at @janewestdc.


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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant