Biden Spending Bill, Including Funds for Universal Pre-K and Child Care, Passes House But Faces Uncertain Future in Senate

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Updated November 19

The House passed President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan Friday morning by a 220 to 213 vote. One Democrat, Jared Golden of Maine, voted against it.

The $1.75 trillion package — which Democrats say creates a vital social safety net for American families but Republicans call a reckless spending spree during a period of inflation — now heads to the Senate, where its future remains uncertain. The legislation would fund universal pre-K, child care and K-12 educator preparation programs over a 10-year period.

“The impact of this proposal on educational equity, excellence and opportunity — from cradle to college and career — will be nothing short of transformative,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

On Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office released its fiscal analysis of the bill, showing the programs would increase the deficit by $367 billion over the 10-year period, a figure that doesn’t include additional revenue from tax enforcement. 

The House is expected to vote next week on President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion social spending plan, but its future in the Senate remains uncertain with some progressives wanting to add more programs to the package and two budget-minded Democrats likely to oppose those efforts.

For now, however, Democrats are celebrating the passage of half of Biden’s legislative agenda — the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that includes funds to expand broadband access, replace diesel school buses and rid schools of lead pipes.

Some of those efforts are well-timed. Just last week, a report released from the National Association of State Boards of Education showed that while 45 states have voluntary or mandatory lead testing programs for schools, only 15 provide any financial support for mitigation.

“The influx of money would help bolster state and local efforts for lead testing in schools and provide more opportunities for states to engage in the work,” said Renee Rybak Lang, spokeswoman for the association.

States, she said, will need “clear guidance” on how schools and districts can apply for the funds — $15 billion for replacing lead pipes and $23.5 billion for water treatment projects, fixing pipes and other work to provide clean drinking water.

Families and educators, however, have been more invested in whether the social spending plan — which includes funds for universal pre-K, child care, tax credits and educator preparation programs — makes it to Biden’s desk. For three months, progressive Democrats in the House delayed a vote on the infrastructure bill, arguing they wanted to pass both parts of Biden’s agenda at the same time. But it didn’t work out that way. While they passed the infrastructure bill Friday night, and Biden said he will sign it soon, the House was only able to pass a rule setting up a future vote for the so-called “Build Back Better” plan. Moderates aren’t ready to sign off on it until they can ensure cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office square with what the president has told them about its impact on the deficit.

To advance the bill, Democrats are using a process known as reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority to pass. But some observers suggest it could be well into the holiday season before a vote is scheduled in the Senate. And if changes are made, it would have to go back to the House for approval.

“I do have faith that when we get it out of the House, it will pass in the Senate,” said Julie Kashen, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank. “What’s driving me right now is a lot of hope and the knowledge that there are tons of constituents in West Virginia and Arizona who will benefit from what’s in there.”

Those are the home states of Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the two fiscally conservative Democrats who drove the cost of the package down from its original $3.5 trillion price tag. 

To reach that deal, the White House agreed to extend a higher child tax credit for one year instead of four, eliminated the president’s plan for free community college and took out over $80 billion for school construction. Nonetheless, Manchin, of West Virginia, has said he still might not vote for the $1.75 trillion plan, regardless of what the Congressional Budget Office concludes.

Not the first time’

Losing funds for building and renovating schools has been the biggest disappointment for K-12 leaders, who say it’s not just lead pipes but also mold, asbestos, leaky roofs, and inadequate heating and air-conditioning systems that threaten the health and safety of students. 

“Members of Congress cannot keep punting on funding the second largest infrastructure sector in the country and claim they want global competitiveness, high-quality educators and equitable academic outcomes for students of color,” AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said in a strongly worded statement when the $1.75 trillion agreement was announced. 

The association is asking the U.S. Department of Education to give districts more time to spend relief funds from the American Rescue Plan, which provided $122 billion for K-12, on facility needs. According to the organization’s September survey, a quarter of respondents said the 2024 deadline to spend the money is an obstacle because contractors are hesitant to work under that timeline as long as supply chain disruption is driving up costs and making it hard to get materials.

A spokesman for AASA said the organization has not received a response. But in a statement, the department emphasized the American Rescue Plan’s “historic and unprecedented investment in education” and said it would “continue to work with state and local education communities” to provide support, but did not say whether it would extend the deadline.

Nation ‘not partisan’ on pre-K 

While public schools won’t see more federal funds for construction anytime soon, states would potentially have up to $50 billion over the next three years for “supply building” in the child care sector — including expanding and renovating facilities. Child care centers are among the settings that would accommodate new universal pre-K classrooms.

The combined $400 billion for child care and pre-K in the social spending bill would lower or eliminate the cost of care and preschool for many families. But experts say it’s still hard to predict if states that have never offered public pre-K — such as Idaho, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming — would participate.

“They don’t think they need it,” Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said about those states. While the bill would allow locally funded programs to participate, Barnett added that governors would “have to decide whether they would rather be in control or turn it down and have localities go their own way.”

When pressed recently on whether he supports universal pre-K, Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso said he thinks Biden’s policies aren’t helping people. 

But Kashen of the Century Foundation noted that many Republican governors were early supporters of state-funded pre-K. While the bill in Washington is partisan, she said, “the nation is not partisan on this issue.”

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