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Education Funding

Congress Could Go Big on COVID-19 Aid for Schools After Democrats Take Control

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 07, 2021 2 min read
The U.S. Capitol Dome

With Democrats set to take control of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate following the results of Georgia’s runoff elections, one major consequence for schools could be a big new relief package to help them deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

In the COVID-19 aid package signed by President Donald Trump last month, public schools received $54.3 billion in dedicated aid. Yet even as they were negotiating that legislation, Democrats made it clear that they wanted to get another relief deal in motion after Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden will take office. And top Democrats for education policy said schools still need a lot more emergency funding from Congress to handle the pandemic.

Getting a big relief deal through Congress won’t be straightforward, since Democrats will only control the Senate due to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ ability to break any tie in a 50-50 Senate. Unless the filibuster is abolished, Republicans senators will be able to block major legislation. But there’s at least one avenue open to enact more COVID-19 relief, including aid to schools.

The direct aid for K-12 public schools in the latest relief law is significantly less than previous proposals from lawmakers; one proposal passed by the House last year included $175 billion, while a separate package floated by House Democrats focused just on K-12 education included more than $300 billion.

In addition, Democrats and education officials will push hard for state and local government aid in any new COVID-19 deal. Without that relief, they’ve said, money Congress sends to K-12 schools will be negated by cuts states and local officials make to school budgets amid the economic struggles caused by the pandemic.

Democrats could get around the Senate filibuster through a process called budget reconciliation, a possibility we raised last year when analyzing COVID education relief. We won’t go into all the mechanics of what budget reconciliation means, but suffice to say that they can use it to pass significant relief legislation; lawmakers can use it for federal spending once every budget year.

The two major COVID relief packages for schools passed by Congress have given schools a lot of leeway when it comes to what the emergency aid can be spent on. But when negotiations get under way for a new COVID relief deal, pay attention to whether there’s a shift in how lawmakers talk about the education piece of it, and whether there’s more discussion of earmarking money to help students recover academically from the pandemic’s effects.

For example, in an interview earlier this month, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, stressed that the federal government would have to help pay cash-strapped state and local governments for things like summer school. It will be interesting to see if that or similar proposals get more attention from lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill in the months ahead.

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