New Opportunities:

A Unified Government Presents a Rosy Outlook for Education Policy

On January 20, President Biden and Vice President Harris officially kicked off their first 100 days in office. Their term begins at a moment in history characterized by unprecedented challenges. As the Biden-Harris Administration prepares to lead the nation through a period of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the administration will need all hands on deck to ensure the passage of legislation that will help marginalized students and families across the South get back on their feet.

Speaking from the same balcony that was scaled by insurrectionists only two weeks prior, President Biden repeatedly called for national unity in his inaugural address. Now more than ever, Congress and the White House must employ a unified approach to addressing both the root causes and symptoms of a confluence of existential crises in the United States – a raging pandemic, systemic racism, and domestic terrorism. Victories in both races in the January 5th U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia give the Democratic Party control of the Senate for the first time since 2014 and will likely make the administration’s task of cooperating with Congress simpler. The fourth Black southern U.S. Senator in history and the youngest U.S. Senator in nearly 40 years, both from Georgia, have the opportunity to work with their colleagues in the Senate, President Biden, and Vice President Harris to elevate educational opportunities for Black students, students from low-income families, and other vulnerable students across the South – a region that has been neglected in federal policy for far too long.

For at least the next two years, the Biden-Harris Administration will have a House of Representatives and Senate that will likely be more amenable to its policy priorities than a divided Congress would have been. This should allow the Biden-Harris Administration to pass much of its sweeping education agenda, including tripling funding for Title I, increasing funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), boosting teacher recruitment and retention efforts, fostering safe learning environments for students, and providing federal funds to expand community schools nationwide. The federal government can also make significant progress on providing state and local education agencies with additional federal relief funding to close the digital divide, combat pandemic-related budget cuts, and safely reopen schools for in-person instruction.

Frameworks and proposals already exist to deliver this sweeping change to families in need. For example, last October, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced S.4865, the Full-Service Community School Expansion Act of 2020. If passed, the bill would authorize a historic level of federal funding for full-service community schools, which are public schools that implement integrated student supports, leverage strong community and family partnerships, and offer opportunities for enrichment and expanded learning time. In FY 2020, the federal government invested $25 million in full-service community schools; S.4865 would bring that amount to $500 million in FY 2021 and eventually dedicate $1 billion annually to the program. Particularly in the wake of the trauma and lost learning time wrought by COVID-19, students and families would benefit greatly from this comprehensive proposal to address their academic and non-academic needs.

Three new bills in the House of Representatives would provide additional funding for students and schools.  The Learning Recovery Act proposes $75 billion to help schools address lost learning time for students, the Save Education Jobs Act would provide states and school districts with up to $261 billion over the next 10 years to retain teachers and other school-based staff members, and the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act would provide $100 billion in grants and $30 billion in bond authority for low-income, public K-12 schools to upgrade their infrastructure for safely reopening.

Additionally, President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan would dedicate $170 billion to direct relief for K-12 schools and institutions of higher education across the country. With $130 billion of this amount intended specifically for K-12 schools, communities across the South plagued by digital, health and racial inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 can begin to rebuild and bridge the opportunity gaps preventing students from achieving their full potential. A unified government can pass and deliver the American Rescue Plan’s needed education relief funding.

A unified government can also promote safe and equitable learning environments for students nationwide. The Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act (S.4360), proposed by Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), would divert federal funds from school-based law enforcement officers and instead invest in school-based mental health professionals and social and emotional supports for vulnerable students. Another federal proposal to foster safer learning environments and positive school climates, Virginia Representative A. Donald McEachin’s Protecting our Students in Schools Act of 2020 (H.R.8460), would ban the use of corporal punishment policies in schools that receive federal funding and disseminate grants to states that commit to using positive behavioral interventions and supports. Black students are disproportionately impacted both by the presence of police officers in schools and corporal punishment policies. The federally-mandated reforms instituted by these bills would improve educational opportunities and advance racial equity for students.

Our federal education policy desperately needs transformative change, and this is the time to turn campaign promises into real opportunities for the nation’s students. In education, the role of the federal government is to protect students’ civil rights, ensure that marginalized students receive additional support and resources, and hold states accountable for their students’ learning. While ideological alignment between the executive branch and both chambers of the legislative branch does not guarantee passage or even consideration of any bills that would advance education equity, the rare opening to move forward should compel Congress to act now. At this inflection point in history, the students of today – who will be the leaders of tomorrow – are looking to their leaders in Congress and the White House to chart a path forward. It is up to those leaders to determine the mark they will leave on history.

Sujith Cherukumilli is SEF’s Legislative and Research Analyst.