Now that the presidential election has concluded, educators are anticipating the lame duck Congress will shift its attention to negotiations for a COVID-19 stimulus package and the FY 2021 appropriation, said Peter Zamora, director of federal relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), to attendees at CCSSO’s virtual Annual Policy Forum on Monday.
Over the next month, Congress could finalize a pandemic relief package that may provide billions more for K-12 pandemic recovery efforts, but the political atmosphere is murky due to the continual counting of presidential election votes and President Donald Trump’s legal challenges to the voting process, Zamora said.
Looking ahead to an expected Joe Biden presidency and the 117th Congress, CCSSO is hopeful Congress will increase funding for special education, support universal pre-K initiatives and prioritize student mental health needs, among other activities.
Although there are a lot of issues at play with a change in administrations, perhaps the most pressing one, Zamora said, is for Congress to address a Dec. 11 deadline for a Continuing Resolution (CR), which extended negotiations on the FY 2021 budget plan. That CR level-funded education spending but without another extension or new law, the federal government could face a shutdown, he said.
Additional stimulus funding will also be a priority between now and the next Congress, which begins work in early January 2021, Zamora said. “We are going to be coordinating around looking to get something across the finish line during lame duck,” he said.
CCSSO has said districts will need an additional $158.1 billion to $244.6 billion to reopen school buildings safely and serve all students this year. Proposals developed several months ago on Capitol Hill range from $58 billion to $175 billion, according to legislation from House and Senate leadership, as well as individual lawmakers.
Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders have indicated a desire to discuss a relief package, although negotiations are expected to be intense. During a Senate floor speech Nov. 9, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said, “The Senate’s going to have a busy few weeks. I hope our Democratic colleagues will finally put aside their all-or-nothing obstruction and let targeted pandemic relief move forward.”
Meanwhile, Biden, in a speech Monday, called for “bold action” to fight the pandemic. “We’re still facing a very dark winter,” he said.
Regarding the next administration, Zamora said CCSSO will monitor any movement on Biden campaign promises, such as triple funding for Title I under the Every Student Succeeds Act and boosting funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to 40% of the additional costs of special education services. Regarding the potential increase in funding for IDEA, Zamora said, “That’s a ramp up to a significant investment to benefit students with disabilities.”
Other priorities CCSSO supports from Biden’s campaign include repairing school facilities, expanding universal pre-K programs, improving teacher and school diversity, and prioritizing community schools, Zamora said.
There are many more issues that will need attention from the Biden administration, Zamora said, including assessing students on summative tests during the pandemic.
“They’re not going to be able to avoid a topic that is on top of mind for many of you and for us at CCSSO, which is around the assessment and accountability provisions under their executive authority during this COVID pandemic,” Zamora said.
Progress on some activities that need Congressional approval, however, may not be possible without bipartisan support, he said. The House retained its Democratic majority, and while several Senate elections are still being decided, it is anticipated the Senate will keep its Republican majority for the 117th Congress, he said.
Zamora said Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) is anticipated to be the next chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee due to the retirement of the current chair, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee). Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) will likely retain her status as ranking member on the HELP Committee. Democratic Rep. Robert Scott, of Virginia, is expected to maintain his role as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, with Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, likely to stay as ranking member of that committee, said Zamora.
The split political leadership between the House and Senate means major education legislative action will need across-the-aisle support from both political parties, Zamora said. “Consensus and bipartisanship are going to be necessary to legislate,” he said, adding cooperation can even lead to better legislation.
“We’re in the business of facilitating consensus around sound policy that supports states and students, so we don’t view that as a barrier to effective policy making,” Zamora said.