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Biden Administration Proceeds with Key Education Policy, Names Education Appointees

Congress Moves on COVID Relief Bill

This week Congress moved closer to the enactment of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan— the COVID-relief reconciliation  bill with hundreds of billions of dollars for education, child care, and other education-related needs. The bill is expected to pass in the House this evening. All Democrats are likely to vote for the bill, and possibly some Republicans.

The bill will move to the Senate next week for consideration where the goal is to finalize the bill by March 14, when the current expanded unemployment insurance expires. Several education groups have come forward in support of the bill. Republicans appear likely to oppose the bill holding that it is too much money and that the process has not been bipartisan. However, since the Senate requires only 51 votes to pass the bill, even with all Republicans opposing it, it will pass.

Biden Team Moves on Key Education Policy Before New Secretary Takes Office; New Appointees Named

The Biden Team has set its stakes in the ground on the two most controversial K-12 policy issues before their Education Secretary nominee has been confirmed by the Senate, perhaps sparing him from some political fallout related to these decisions: school reopening and federal testing waivers.

On  Monday, the U.S. Department of Education informed states that it’s not inviting them to seek “blanket waivers of assessments” for the 2020-21 school year, a message that essentially tells states that they should plan to give federally mandated exams in English/language arts, math, and science. States received such blanket waivers last spring. This year the Department will consider requests to essentially put accountability systems on hold. That would mean not identifying certain schools for improvement or differentiating schools by ratings for the 2020-21 school year, for example. States could also get waivers from the requirement that at least 95 percent of eligible students take the tests. As for the tests themselves, the Biden administration said states would have the option of giving shorter versions of the regular tests. administering tests remotely, and expanding their testing windows so that students could take the exams this summer or even during the 2021-22 school year.

Dozens of civil rights, education and business organizations including The National Urban League, Education Trust, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised the Education Department’s decision but said authorities “must not” allow states to substitute local tests in place of statewide assessments, or to only test subsets of students. On the other hand, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement: “While its plan does offer the option for testing modifications and waivers for accountability requirements, which is a start, it misses a huge opportunity to really help our students by allowing the waiver of assessments and the substitution, instead, of locally-developed, authentic assessments that could be used by educators and parents as a baseline for work this summer and next year.”

Earlier this month the CDC released guidance on school reopening which seems to have set the stage for a tense debate rather than offering much needed clarity that many had hoped for. In his first town-hall as president, Biden said he wants to see all kindergarten through 8th grade schools open five days a week near the end of his first 100 days in office. “The loss of being able to be back in school is having a significant impact on the children and parents as well,” Biden said at the town hall in Milwaukee.

The CDC guidance recommends that schools limit the spread of Covid-19 by following certain key strategies: mask-wearing, physical distancing, handwashing, keeping classrooms clean and well-ventilated, and contact tracing when someone in the school tests positive for the virus. Vaccines and testing are not among the “key” strategies the agency lays out. They are listed as “additional layers” of COVID-19 prevention.  The National Education Association issued a statement saying for schools to have the necessary resources to follow these mitigation strategies, the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan is needed, highlighting that such funding would support ventilation systems, personal protective equipment for students and teachers, among other COVID-19 safety tools. The American Federation of Teachers in a statement echoed the importance of adequate funding.  So for now, some school districts see the guidance as reason to stay open, but other schools—especially if they don’t have the means to implement safety strategies—may view the guidance as a reason to stay closed.

All the while, Miguel Cardona’s nomination to be Secretary of Education cleared a key procedural hurdle in the Senate on Thursday, paving the way for his confirmation on Monday.  The bipartisan vote of 66-32 allowing the nomination to move forward bodes well for a final bipartisan confirmation vote. While we wait for Cardona’s confirmation, the U.S. Department of Education announced  more political appointees that will lead various parts of the agency.

In addition to the list of political appointees to the Department announced on Monday,  the White House announced it will nominate James Kvaal to be Undersecretary of Education, a position responsible for postsecondary education, student aid, career technical education and adult education. He is president of The Institute for College Access & Success, and previously worked during Democratic Administrations in the Department of Education and on the Domestic Policy Council. Several groups praised the nomination of Kvall in a letter of support stating:  ​​“This is a terrific nomination for students, colleges and universities, and the entire country. President Biden could not have made a better choice.”  Kvall joins Cindy Marten, the superintendent of schools in San Diego, who President Biden also formally nominated on Monday to be Deputy Secretary of Education.

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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant