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Congress Advances COVID Relief and Secretary of Education Confirmation

U.S. Capitol

Biden’s COVID Relief Proposal Moves Forward in the House

As per the requirements of the Budget Resolution that passed earlier this month, the shift was made this week to committees of jurisdiction. Eleven committees are involved in the House and each must draft an individual bill in compliance with the instructions in the Budget Resolution. Then the Committees submit those bills back to the Budget Committee, which creates the overall $1.9 trillion package to be considered by the full House. The same process is supposed to occur in the Senate—all with the deadline of March 14 when current COVID unemployment supplements expire.

Three Committees include important provisions related to education. The first—the Committee on Education and Labor—finalized their $170 billion proposal for education, over twice the annual budget for the Department of Education.  The Committee approved the measure, 27-21, along party lines after considering more than 30 amendments, several of which were intended to require schools to reopen for in-person instruction. The $170 billion is comprised of $130 billion for K-12 schools and $40 billion for higher education. Led by Chair Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the Committee package also includes an increase of the minimum wage to $15 per hour, which Republicans oppose.

A second Committee, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is producing a bill that includes $7.6 billion for a new Emergency Connectivity Fund within the e-rate program. This program will provide funding for elementary and secondary schools and for libraries to buy devices and connectivity services for students and individuals to use for remote learning.

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform, the third Committee, includes $350 billion for state and local governments—funds that may be used for public education—at the discretion of state and local government recipients. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) submitted a letter to the committee in support of this resolution.

The House also moved to name Members of Committees for the 117th Congress, including the Education and Labor Committee and its subcommittees.  Freshman Congressman Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) was formally and unanimously elected  by colleagues to be vice chair of the committee. Bowman is a former teacher and principal with a track record of challenging the use of high stakes standardized testing—arguing that it perpetuates inequalities. “In the richest country in the world, every child and every worker should be able to live in dignity and reach their full potential,” Bowman said. “As vice chair, I’m proud to stand with our students and families every day and to ensure their voices are heard.”

Senate HELP Committee Confirms Miguel Cardona for Secretary of Education and Moves Toward a COVID Package

The Senate HELP Committee cast a bi-partisan vote of 17-5 to confirm Miguel Cardona as the next Secretary of Education. In supporting the nomination, Ranking Member Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) cited his “clear qualifications.” He further noted “He’s stressed the need for students to be back in school, and that’s now, finally, a bipartisan mission.” Next up for Cardona is a vote by the full Senate, though the timing is unknown. 

As the House wraps up its work on the reconciliation package, all eyes will shift to the Senate.  With the tight deadline of March 14, it appears likely that the Senate may simply take up and pass the House version of the bill, leaving any possible changes to take place during conference. 

Several Members of the Senate are weighing in with their priorities hoping they will be reflected in the COVID relief bill. Sen Chris Murphy (D-CT) led 12 Senate Democrats in urging Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to include funding for summer enrichment opportunities for low-income children. In a letter, the Senators stressed COVID-19’s disproportionate effects on low-income families and urged the necessity of setting aside funding for summer programs to help prevent learning loss and promote social and emotional development.

Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT), along with Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) reintroduced legislation to better support students with disabilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supporting Children with Disabilities During COVID-19 Act would provide $11 billion for state grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), $900 million for early childhood education programs, $300 million for personnel development, and $55 million under the Assistive Technology Act of 1998.

Like the House, the Senate is naming Members to Committees for the 117th Congress.  The HELP Committee includes new senators, including Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO, Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) and Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL).

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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant