Biden Budget Plan Includes $8B to Put Learning Recovery on a ‘Faster Track’

But the proposal faces pushback from Republicans who think districts made poor investments with pandemic relief funds.

President Joe Biden waved to supporters after discussing his budget proposal Monday at the Granite State YMCA Allard Center of Goffstown in New Hampshire. (Sophie Park/Getty Images)

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With districts bracing for the expiration of federal relief funds this year, the Biden administration on Monday proposed a new $8 billion grant program to sustain successful programs helping students recover from pandemic learning loss.

The proposed Academic Acceleration and Achievement Grants, part of the administration’s $7.3 trillion budget plan for fiscal year 2025, would target three strategies Education Secretary Miguel Cardona highlighted in January — addressing chronic absenteeism, offering high-impact tutoring and extending learning afterschool and during the summer. 

In a call with reporters, an education department official said the competitive grant program would help put the recovery efforts districts launched with relief dollars “on an even faster track and sustain the improvements that states have put into place.” But to make space for the administration’s priorities, leaders are recommending a few cuts, including a $40 million reduction to a program that provides start-up funds for charter schools.

The announcement of the grant program follows the recent release of data showing most students still haven’t caught up to pre-pandemic performance levels. But with the current fiscal year budget still delayed by partisan disagreements over spending for defense and the IRS, advocates acknowledged that passing a substantial new program will be tough.

The proposal will face “the political realities of heading into an election year and the limitations of the budget,” said Nakia Towns, chief operating officer of Accelerate, a national initiative funding tutoring research and programs. The organization’s leaders began discussing how to provide new funds for tutoring efforts with department officials and the White House last fall, Towns said. But she added that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns about students struggling to catch up.

“Everybody has been in agreement that kids still need more support, schools still need more support for learning recovery,” she said. “Now it’s about what actually gets over the goal posts in the budget process.”

Overall, the Education Department is asking for $82 billion for next fiscal year — a $3.1 billion increase. The proposal keeps spending in line with the caps enacted last year in a bipartisan agreement to avoid the federal government defaulting on its financial obligations. In his comments, Cardona contrasted the Biden administration’s track record on education with that of his presidential challenger Donald Trump and his Republican colleagues in Congress. 

“This is a budget request that comes on top of three years of historic investments proposed by President Biden and delivered with support from many in Congress,” he said. “It blows the Trump budgets out of the water.”

It includes $18.6 billion for Title I, a $200 million increase over the current 2023 level; a $25 million preschool grant program; and $14.4 billion for special education, also a $200 million increase.

But to keep spending within the federal spending limit, the department targeted the Charter Schools Program, recommending a $40 million cut to the $440 million program. In response, Eric Paisner, acting president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the budget proposal “falls disappointingly short of prioritizing public charter schools and public educational options for parents who are looking for something better.”

The National Parents Union also criticized the move, saying the program “has played a vital role in empowering communities to establish public, accountable schools tailored to the unique needs of students.”

But the advocacy group welcomed the new competitive grant program, calling it part of the administration’s “deep-seated commitment to not only recovering from the setbacks of recent years, but also to advancing our educational system to new heights.”

The proposal is unlikely to receive a friendly reception in the House, where the Republican majority has frequently reminded the public of the harmful impact of long school closures, particularly in blue states and cities with strong teachers unions. During a late January hearing, some members suggested districts had either wasted the historic $190 billion or have little to show for the historic investment.

“I think it unlikely that congressional Republicans would want to shower another $8 billion on school systems,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Schools took far too long to open, express any urgency about absenteeism or learning loss, or start trying to convince the public and policymakers that the dollars were being spent effectively.”

In a statement, North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, who chairs the House education committee, said the budget plan “would gobble up more taxpayer dollars without any shred of accountability.”

Charting ‘a path forward’

Towns, former deputy superintendent for the Gwinnett County Public Schools, near Atlanta, noted that the American Rescue Plan, which required districts to spend 20% of their funds to address learning loss, lacked requirements to ensure the dollars were spent on effective programs. 

Accelerate, however, has urged the administration to ask for more data from districts so they can demonstrate that “kids are getting the intensity and consistency of tutoring that we know is needed in order for it to actually make a difference,” she said. 

Many districts used relief funds to implement strong tutoring programs, added Liz Cohen, policy director at FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University. In January, FutureEd released her report highlighting some of those efforts, including Teach for America’s Ignite program, which this year has over 1,500 college students tutoring 3,500 elementary and middle school students in 21 states. 

She also noted Texas’s Ector County Independent School District, which implemented a contract that rewards tutoring providers with higher pay if students make significant progress.

“There is so much great tutoring happening already and I would love to see us learn from what’s working right now as we chart a path forward,” Cohen said.

One sign that districts are more focused on results for students is the growth of Pearl, a technology company that offers an online platform for districts to store tutoring data, such as the number of sessions scheduled and whether students attend. The business received a $250,000 grant from Accelerate in 2022. 

Some states and districts initially signed contracts with online, on-demand tutoring providers, but research later showed that students often didn’t use the services. Pearl founder John Failla said he’s noticed greater interest in districts using models that experts recommend.

“All of our data is pointing towards states and districts wanting to run their own programs with their own tutors … versus working with online vendors,” he said.

Almost 450 districts now use the system, with the number of sessions growing from about 13,600 in February 2023 to almost 80,000 a year later.

Cohen added that GOP-led states are among those that have made tutoring and summer learning programs a high priority. Tennessee launched its TN ALL Corps tutoring program in 2020, which is expected to reach 200,000 students by this summer. And Alabama has concentrated recovery efforts during the summer, with reading and math camps.

As they weigh the president’s budget request, Cohen said she hopes “Republicans choose to consider the success we’ve seen in many red states.”

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