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Pared-Down Social Spending Bill Retains Universal Pre-K, But Guts Biden’s K-12 Agenda

By Linda Jacobson | October 28, 2021

President Joe Biden talked with a pre-K student at East End Elementary School in North Plainfield, New Jersey, Oct. 25. His social spending proposal would spend $200 billion to help states expand free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / Getty Images)

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The child care and universal pre-K proposals in President Joe Biden’s social spending plan have survived efforts to slash the original $3.5 trillion price tag down to a figure more acceptable to two fiscally conservative Democrats in the Senate.

But the new $1.75 trillion bill released Thursday, leaves out some programs that would have directly impacted the K-12 system, such as funding for school construction, while reducing original amounts reserved for student’s at-home internet access and teacher and principal preparation. Progressive leaders in the House say they still want to see the actual text of the reconciliation bill before agreeing to vote for a separate $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill — another major piece of Biden’s first-year agenda. That leaves both bills in jeopardy for now.

“No one got everything they wanted — including me,“ Biden said after meeting Thursday with Democrats at the Capitol.

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Two years of free community college, another signature Biden campaign promise, has been eliminated from the package. It extends an increase in the child tax credit, but just for one year, instead of the four Biden wanted. There will be enough to expand free school meals to 8.7 million students for five years and provide 29 million children with $65 per month for food during the summer.

The bill is a “commentary on what is achievable with such a small and slim majority in the Senate and the House,” said Sean Worley, a senior policy associate at EducationCounsel, a consulting firm advising districts on policy and legal issues. The Biden administration, he added, proposed a “very robust … new vision for what education speeding could and should be. They just ran headfirst into some political headwinds.”

The hard-won agreement over the size of the legislation was expected to be a step toward getting a vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes electric school buses, broadband access and eliminating lead pipes from schools. But progressives have repeatedly threatened to withhold their support for the infrastructure bill until they have a guarantee that the social spending package will pass. With a budget process known as reconciliation, the president doesn’t need any Republicans to vote for the plan, but he’s had a hard time getting consensus within his party. It took multiple meetings with Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to reach this point. Experts note that just because some of the family and education programs have been cut from the legislation doesn’t mean they won’t resurface in a future bill, and Congress still has other unresolved budget issues to address in early December: approving a budget for fiscal year 2022 and lifting the federal debt limit to continue paying for past spending bills. 

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For now, however, Biden is aiming for a win with an early-childhood proposal that would reduce families’ costs for child care and allow states to launch or expand universal pre-K programs for 3- and 4-year-olds

“This is a fundamental shift in education,” he said Monday while visiting two preschool classes at East End Elementary School in New Jersey’s North Plainfield School District. “We’re going to make sure it’s available for everybody.” 

The fact that the plan — paid for with taxes on corporations and those earning over $400,000 a year — still includes $400 billion for both child care and pre-K “speaks to the recognition of early care and education as critical to our nation’s infrastructure and the well-being of families,” said Lea Austin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. She said both working mothers and those with a background in the field — including Senate education committee Chair Patty Murray — have come together “to change the conditions.”

The child care provision promises to limit costs to no more than 7 percent of a family’s income and increase wages for staff. But Austin said she wants to see pay and working conditions for providers match those for preschool and elementary school teachers.

Some experts say it doesn’t make sense to expand pre-K without also improving preparation programs for K-12 educators. Biden’s original plan would have included $197 million for grow-your-own programs that recruit and train young people to become teachers in their own communities, as well as $198 million each for teacher residency and principal preparation programs. Those three provisions have been reduced to $112 million each. 

“It would be a head-scratcher to pump all this money into pre-K but not also bolster the educator pipeline – it’s core to successfully expanding high-quality pre-K,” said Danny Carlson, assistant executive director for policy and advocacy at the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

In a statement, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the plan makes “historic down payments” on pre-K and child care, but she didn’t address the lack of K-12 programs in the plan. 

“Any transformational change is hard to get done, and this historic compromise is no different.” the statement said.

Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which advocates for modernizing schools, was more direct.

“We are deeply disappointed that funding to repair or replace crumbling schools in our most underserved communities has been left out of the final [Build Back Better Act],” she said in a statement. “The disparities in conditions result in disparities in education delivered and student achievement.”

Worley said there’s a chance Democrats would either try to add those initiatives to the fiscal year 2022 appropriations bill — which Congress has to address by Dec. 3 — or revive the proposal next year in a fiscal 2023 budget. But he notes that the administration already  faced a tough time winning support for proposed increases to Title I for low-income schools. And that bill would have to win support from Republicans, who have so far rejected most of Biden’s attempts to increase government spending.

Biden’s free community college plan could also make a comeback in a reauthorization of the HIgher Education Act, which is now 13 years past due, said Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy at the National College Attainment Network.

During a CNN town hall last week Biden said it looked like he would still be able to get a $500 Pell Grant increase into the bill.

“Increasing the Pell Grant is meaningful to … recipients, but the size of the bump will determine how much so,” Warick said, adding that “an emergency as low as $300 can lead to a student dropping out.”

The nonprofit’s research shows a gap of $855 between the current Pell Grant award of $6,495 and the average community college student’s expenses. A $500 increase, plus another $400 proposed increase in the fiscal 2022 appropriations bill, would cover that gap.

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Another signature piece of Biden’s plan would have been a four-year extension in the higher child tax credit that was included in the American Rescue Plan last March — $3,600 a year for  children under 6 and $3,000 for older children. Now the increase will last for one year.

Any extension is good, said Chris Swanson, who leads the Institute for Innovation in Development, Engagement and Learning Systems at Johns Hopkins University. But he added, “The reality is things are not getting better for the American people. We still are in the midst of a pandemic coupled with major shifts in economics and employment.”

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