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Can Congress Deliver on a Much Needed COVID Relief Package

Financial aid concept, Life buoy lifebelt with money bagSenate Republicans Reveal Proposal for Next COVID Relief Package—a Nonstarter for Democrats

We ended the week with the chasm between Democrats and Republicans looming as the clock ticks toward recess and campaigning, not to mention expiring unemployment benefits, expired eviction prohibitions and schools and higher education struggling with reopening plans. Leader McConnell revealed the HEALS Act—the Senate Republican response to the House Democratic HEROES Act—as the opener for negotiations on the next COVID relief package. A third proposal, CCERA, was put forward by Senate Democrats. A comparison of education spending in the three bills reveals the following:


Total Education


Higher Education

HEROES Act – House Dem Bill

$90 B for Education + $915 B for states, which could be used for education

$58 B

$29 B

CCERA – Senate Dem Bill

$345 B

$175 B

$132 B + $33 B for Governor’s fund

HEALS Act – Senate Republican Bill

$105 B

$ 70 B

$29 B + $5.2 B for Governor’s fund

The HEALS Act includes three education provisions that are non-starters for Democrats. The bill distributes K-12 funding to private as well as public schools; it ties most of the funding to the degree to which schools are open in-person; and it creates a new voucher program, Education Freedom Scholarships. Multiple education groups have weighed in opposing the HEALS Act noting it “misses the mark and falls far short of the needs facing our nation’s schools.” The American Council on Education issued a statement calling the $29 billion for higher education inadequate. The higher education sector has estimated that it will take at least $120 billion to deal with lost revenues and increased costs resulting from the pandemic. Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA)  issued a statement blasting the HEALS Act. 

“This is not a plan to help schools reopen safely; it is a recipe for more chaos and illness…It is also shameful Senate Republicans are using this pandemic as an excuse to advance Secretary DeVos’ ideological school privatization agenda by taking critical funding from public schools. Not only does this proposal send money directly to private schools, but this ‘freedom scholarship’ is just a re-packaged version of same unacceptable voucher program that Congress has repeatedly rejected.” 

A fourth matter that has increasingly becoming a concern for Democrats and advocates is the liability shield provisions included in the HEALS Act. While ostensibly intended to prevent against COVID related lawsuits except in cases of gross negligence, they appear to go well beyond that potentially nullifying some civil rights protections in a number of laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act. Analysis is underway.

Many Senate Republicans blasted the HEALS Act too, calling it too expensive and feeling that they had little input into the bill.  Several objected to the inclusion of $2 billion for a new FBI building in Washington, which is next to Trump hotel. This was a priority of the White House; however, the White House has not come out in support of the HEALS Act.

The expiration of federal unemployment insurance supplements, as well as the moratorium on evictions, increasingly pressures Republicans and Democrats to act. There is a possibility that those two matters could be addressed in a “quick fix” bill and then Congress could recess for August, leaving the heavy lifting for September. If this happens, the momentum for a significant COVID package will be muted. Stay tuned.

House Passes FY 2021 Education Spending Bill

Despite a veto threat from the Trump Administration, the House today passed its final group of 6 spending bills for FY 2021, including the Labor/HHS/Education bill. The House bill includes a modest 1.7% increase for education, bringing total federal investment to $73.5 billion. The House has now passed all but 2 funding bills, while the Senate has not begun action on any of the 12 bills. The fiscal year ends September 30, making it all but certain that a continuing resolution – or simple extension of existing appropriations levels – will be adopted for a period of time.

New International Students Barred from 100% Online Programs/ DACA Under Attack Again
The U.S. Immigration office issued new guidance clarifying that new international students – unlike current international students—cannot come to the United States and participate in 100% online courses. Previously, the office had issued guidance prohibiting continuing international students from taking all classes online; however, the government agreed to withdraw that guidance in response to litigation.  Higher education advocates were disappointed by this guidance, having sought policy that would allow current and new international students to participate in fully online programs.

Six weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and overruled the Trump Administration’s effort to end it.  The Court called the Administration’s reversal “arbitrary and capricious.” This week the Department of Homeland Security announced that it will scale back the program as it reviews it for further action. Any new requests for DACA will be rejected and the renewal period for existing protections will be reduced from two years to one year.  The DACA program protects from deportation those who were brought to this country as children and enables them to work and attend school. Over 2% of higher education enrollment is by unauthorized students.

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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant