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Education Funding

Details of Biden’s Education Relief Pitch Prioritize Smaller Classes, Avoiding Layoffs

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 05, 2021 5 min read
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Schools need $60 billion to prevent teacher layoffs and close budget gaps, $50 billion to implement social distancing by reducing class size, and $29 billion for extended learning programs and summer schools, in order to help students and educators recover from the coronavirus pandemic, according to new details from Biden’s K-12 relief proposal.

Those figures are part of the Biden administration’s $145 billion estimate of pandemic-related needs for K-12 schools that will help set the stage for COVID-19 relief negotiations in Congress on a new aid package. Democratic lawmakers have introduced their own suite of relief bills that will also likely play a part in the debate, and it’s ultimately up to Congress to agree on relief legislation for schools and other areas.

The new funding justification from the Biden administration seeks to support the $130 billion K-12 relief plan put forward by the president shortly before his inauguration. Though some lawmakers have suggested President Joe Biden’s proposal is too large, the total needs outlined in the document come to $145 billion, exceeding the amount included in his plan. It also includes $14 billion for additional custodial staff, $14 billion for transportation, $7 billion to improve student access to the internet to close the “digital divide,” and $6 billion for personal protective equipment.

There’s also $2 billion in the estimate for “equity challenge” grants for state and tribal governments to “partner with teachers, parents, and other stakeholders to advance equity- and evidence-based policies to respond to COVID-19 educational equity challenges.”

While Biden has tied the need for more relief funding to his goal of opening a majority of K-8 schools in his first 100 days in office, the funding estimates in the document cover the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years.

“Funds are included for next year because we know that in order to invest in safely reopening, districts need financial certainty that they will not have to lay off teachers next fall in order to implement consistent COVID-19 safety protocols,” says the Biden estimate obtained by Education Week. “They do not have that certainty right now. Further, school districts that are already open need more support to implement mitigation efforts that protect students, educators, and school staff.”

The Biden template cited a variety of outside groups for its estimates. For example, it says it relied on the Learning Policy Institute (which is led by Linda Darling-Hammond, who was in charge of Biden’s education transition team), the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, among others. For the $50 billion estimate for social distancing (which includes smaller class sizes), it drew on an American Federation of Teachers estimate, and the AFT was also a source for the $6 billion estimate need for personal protective equipment.

The document also relied heavily on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for cost estimates. However, the estimate notes that a previous CDC estimate of costs for safely reopening schools did not include several factors, like social distancing.

Although the estimate puts a $199 billion price tag on the various needs for K-12, it subtracts the $54 billion already provided for K-12 public schools by a relief package enacted last December.

Political heat is intensifying around school reopening

The plan will likely lead to debates on several points.

The plan says $29 billion for learning recovery would support things like 20 days of additional instruction for “all low-income students.” Although estimates of students’ “learning loss” during the pandemic should be considered with caution, 20 days of additional learning might fall well short of how much many students have fallen behind. In fact, Democrats in Congress have recently proposed $75 billion to address learning recovery over fiscal 2021 and fiscal 2022.

Much of the proposed funding might not be particularly helpful when it comes to Biden’s immediate goal of getting most K-12 schools open within 100 days of his inauguration. Some lawmakers might favor a narrower, more-targeted request.

On a related matter: Even with additional federal aid, it might be difficult for many schools to hire qualified staff quickly enough to fill gaps before the end of this school year.

And schools might find it difficult to keep staff they hired using these or other federal relief money once the funding expires, especially if states and local governments make significant and long-lasting cuts to K-12 aid.

Most states have left it up to individual districts to decide between in-person, hybrid, and remote-only learning options. In addition to his “100 days” promise, Biden has also signed executive orders directing the U.S. Department of Education to provide clear guidance to help schools reopen safely, and to collect data about where schools stand with respect to COVID-19.

School leaders and education advocacy groups have continued to press for aid throughout the pandemic to cover COVID-19 mitigation, academic issues, and budgetary concerns. Yet others wonder whether the $67 billion in virus relief already provided by Congress for K-12 education should be sufficient for schools to largely resume traditional operations.

Concerns continue to percolate about whether Biden’s 100-days benchmark is ambitious enough, or whether his administration will push aggressively to ensure a big uptick for in-person learning, as high-profile disputes about reopening school buildings play out in places like Chicago and San Francisco.

Earlier this week, a confusing sequence of events played out in which CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that teacher vaccinations are not a prerequisite for schools safely reopening. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki subsequently said Walensky was not outlining official Biden administration policy and was speaking only in a personal capacity, even though Walensky made the statement at a White House briefing.

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Evie Blad, Staff Writer contributed to this article.

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