In Final Hours of Senate Negotiations, Congress Poised to Approve $82 Billion in New Assistance for Schools, Including Funds to Help Reopen Classrooms

Dec. 28 Update: After keeping the nation in limbo over the holidays, President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan COVID-19 relief package Sunday night. “I will sign the Omnibus and Covid package with a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed,” he said in a statement.

The president said he wanted $2,000 payments to individuals instead of $600. The House is expected to vote on a standalone bill that would increase the payments to $2,000. but it’s unclear whether Senate Republicans would even consider it. The long-awaited relief package includes about $54 billion for K-12 schools and $23 billion for colleges and universities.

Senate negotiators were closing in on a $900 billion bipartisan relief deal Thursday that would include $54 billion for schools, saying they were prepared to work through the weekend to get it done. That’s four times the amount schools received in the March relief package, but less than earlier proposals from both parties.

Lacking from the deal, however, is funding for state and local governments, which Democrats and education advocates believe is necessary to minimize cuts to education funding, but that President Donald Trump has called a “bailout.”

Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called on Congress not to leave for the holiday break without passing a bill that included funding for states to help families struggling financially, implement vaccination plans, and spark economic recovery.

To keep the government running, Congress must pass a $1.4 trillion federal spending bill before midnight Friday or a continuing resolution to buy some more time over the weekend.

The relief proposal no longer includes language that would make payments contingent on whether schools physically reopen — a provision that would have been nearly impossible to enforce as surging COVID cases has many districts wavering between remote and in-person learning.

State leaders are concerned about shortfalls in income and sales taxes as well as ongoing costs related to the pandemic. The National Conference of State Legislatures is forecasting revenues to be an average 11 percent lower than earlier projections for the rest of fiscal year 2021, according to Austin Reid, who directs the organization’s education standing committee.

While specific cuts to education won’t be finalized until state legislatures begin meeting next month, he said at least 10 states have either announced cuts so far or eliminated proposed increases. A 10 percent decline in state revenue generally translates into a 6 percent cut in education funding, he said.

‘Digital inequities’ 

The relief deal — which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly hopes will boost the chances of two GOP senators in a Georgia runoff election — also leaves out liability protections he sought to protect employers, including school districts, from legal claims if employees get COVID-19 at work. The results of the Jan. 5 runoff will determine whether Republicans remain in control of the Senate and McConnell keeps his position as majority leader.

Those omissions, however, could pave the way for another relief bill in the Biden administration, experts said. President-elect Joe Biden suggested Wednesday that there should be more relief to come. “It’s an important down payment,” he said.

Without state and local funding and liability protections, both parties would have an incentive to work on another package, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for advocacy and governance at AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

“I would be concerned if McConnell were to do a deal that moved one, but not the other, because then there is feasibly less pressure for both parties to come back to the table,” she said.

Negotiators are working on a compromise between two proposals released Monday by a coalition in the Senate that included Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah. One plan totaled $748 billion, but left out state and local funding, while the other included that funding and an additional $160 billion for liability protections.

Holding up the current deal are decisions about whether to extend an eviction moratorium that expires at the end of this month and the amount of direct payments to families and individuals.

The plan is expected to use the same structure for education funding as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, passed in March — an allotment for states to distribute to districts through Title I and a $7.5 billion fund for governors that would include $2.5 billion for private schools.

The proposal also includes $10 billion for child care — a fifth of what Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, ranking member on the education committee, recommended in May. And it includes $10 billion for broadband, including $3 billion for distance learning.

While the CARES Act allowed states and districts to direct funding toward distance learning, it did not include targeted funding for broadband access and devices. Still, Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, suggested the $3 billion is inadequate and that the current proposal “regards that access as a luxury.”

“The pandemic exposed the digital inequities among our students,” he said. “Sufficient, reliable broadband and device access is an essential condition for high-quality education.”

Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit, said the inclusion of funding to close the “home learning gap” was encouraging and that $3 billion could meet the demand for internet access for students for the rest of the school year. A permanent solution, however, would involve changing the federal internet service discount program, known as E-Rate, “so that schools have an ongoing source of funds to ensure every student has equal access to educational opportunity.” The program currently doesn’t cover students’ home internet access.

The $54 billion is roughly a quarter of the amount AASA and the Council for Chief State School Officers have estimated they need to reopen schools on a broader scale. And it’s less than the $125 billion superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts — New York’s Richard Carranza, Los Angeles’s Austin Beutner, and Chicago’s Janice Jackson — called for in a Sunday op-ed.

Districts have been using their own funds to cover cleaning, coronavirus testing, contact tracing, mental health support and other expenses, they wrote. On Dec. 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report estimating the total costs of recommended cleaning procedures at $3 billion nationally, while the price tag for custodial services would range between $5 billion and $10 billion. Transportation costs could also reach roughly $9.5 billion, the report said.

The deal in Congress wouldn’t include targeted funding for programs such as tutoring and summer school to help students make up for lost learning — another reason advocates could continue to push for another bill early next year.

“Budgets are shrinking while needs are expanding from the pandemic,” Nozoe said. “Schools need that funding not just to stabilize budgets shaken by local economies, but to accelerate learning after the pandemic.”

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