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Looking Ahead to the Biden Administration and the 117th Congress

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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.

Yesterday, President-Elect Biden revealed his massive $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan, hoping to jump start consideration in Congress. The goal of the education portion of the bill is to provide enough support for a robust vaccination plan, treatment, and funding to reopen a majority of K-8 schools safely within 100 days.  The proposal provides $170 billion for K-12 and higher education. To date, the Congress has enacted almost $113 billion for the Department of Education in COVID relief funds. 

Of the $170 billion in education funds, $130 billion would be for K-12 relief intended to cover technology needs; counseling, support for social, emotional, and academic needs of students; provision of smaller classes’ PPE, extra transportation; cleaning costs; and more. The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund includes $35 billion for public colleges, public and private HBCUs and Minority Serving Institutions to provide online learning and emergency grants to students. A Governors’ fund is allocated $5 billion to support education for areas that have been the hardest hit by COVID, from pre-K through higher education. In addition, $350 billion is made available for state and local fiscal relief, a portion of which may be used for education. Funds are provided for regular testing for teachers and students, per recommendations from the Rockefeller Foundation.

With last week’s stunning victories by Senators-Elect Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia, Democrats now hold the slimmest of majorities with a 50/50 split among Republicans and Democrats and Vice President-Elect Harris holding the tie breaking vote. This gives Committee chairmanships to Democrats, who are quickly developing their priorities.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will serve as the head of the Senate Budget Committee and be a key figure in crafting the COVID relief package that President-Elect Biden is calling for.  He is likely to use a powerful legislative vehicle called reconciliation, which requires a simple majority of 51 votes to pass, thus eliminating the need to bring Republicans on board. During a 15-minute interview on Tuesday, Senator Sanders stated, “I’m going to use reconciliation in as aggressive a way as I possibly can to address the terrible health and economic crises facing working people today.” Sanders pledged to spend billions to stop the spread of COVID-19 and strengthen the economy.

Reconciliation is not the only strategy available to move incoming President Biden’s policy priorities. Many progressives are pressuring President-Elect Biden to use  executive action  to revamp everything from student loan forgiveness to climate change. Some Democrats see executive action as Biden’s opportunity to pass necessary legislation without having to play “wait and see” with Republicans. The push for executive action highlights a push and pull within the Democratic party: Biden is a self-described institutionalist and has indicated he prefers to work with Congress rather than move ahead on his own. A first test case is likely to be the call for increased student loan forgiveness—of up to $50,000.   

In a December briefing Biden stated that, “it is arguable that he would be able to forgive $50,000 in student debt.” Freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) said Biden’s comments were “unfortunate” and “really miss the moment.” “People like Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, and myself know the opposite to be true — know it to be true that he does have the authority,” said Jones. “It is why more people like myself, more millennials, need to be represented in positions of power in our federal government, because we understand the urgency of the student debt crisis, which has crippled millions of young people.”

In the midst of all the events over the past week, President-Elect Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has been making rounds meeting with education groups and Members of  Congress. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) tweeted he spoke with Cardona on Tuesday about the nominee’s “new vision” for the department. “There is much work to do — Betsy DeVos turned the Department into a shell of its former self — but I believe Dr. Cardona is up to the task & I look forward to working with him,” he said.  Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) also reported his own meeting late last week, saying Cardona would bring “invaluable experience” to address the challenges facing New Mexico schools. The Senate HELP Committee, under the new leadership of incoming Chair, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), is already planning for the Cardona confirmation hearing. That may take place as early as the week of January 25. 

On Thursday, the  Biden-Harris Transition team  announced that Carmel Martin and Catherine Lhamon will be deputy directors of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council.  Both had roles in the Department of Education in the Obama Administration.

Read the full Washington Update on my website for more information. I look forward to seeing you on Twitter @janewestdc.

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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant