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How Biden Could Steer Education Spending Without Waiting on Congress

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 11, 2020 4 min read
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President-elect Joe Biden has big plans to spend a lot more on K-12 education, but those plans depend on Congress going along, which could be a longshot in some areas. It’s hard to see Capitol Hill tripling Title I aid like Biden wants, for example, given recent federal education spending trends. And getting any major initiative through Congress is a difficult task these days.

Nevertheless, Biden’s U.S. Department of Education won’t have its hands completely tied by federal lawmakers. Let’s highlight a few potentially overlooked areas where the department could push its priorities with relative freedom.

COVID-19 Relief

First, watch any future coronavirus relief agreement closely. Lawmakers could approve a relatively small set-aside of the overall education aid for the secretary to use in a broad way to address the most acute effects of COVID-19.

The CARES Act’s set-aside was $308 million, or 1 percent of its total education aid. Here’s how U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used it for K-12 schools.

Statutory language governs such set-asides, so the department can’t do absolutely anything it wants with that money. But the secretary could have a lot of flexibility to fund the administration’s priorities in a COVID-19 context.

The CARES set-aside is much less than the roughly $4 billion the Race to the Top competitive grant received in the 2009 stimulus package, to use one comparison. Congress has talked about a much bigger aid package in the next round of relief, which—depending on which proposal you look at—could create a much larger set-aside than the CARES Act. There’s no guarantee there would be a set-aside in a new relief bill. But obviously Democrats could push for it in negotiations.

‘Weave Their Priorities’

Then there are longstanding grant programs that are distributed on a competitive basis. Congress still funds those, so without Capitol Hill they don’t exist. And they’re quite small compared to big-ticket programs that go out by formula, such as Title I. But the department decides on and publicizes priorities for these grants before considering which states, school districts, or other education groups get the grant awards.

“They can try to weave their priorities into the competitive grant programs,” said Sarah Abernathy, the deputy executive director of the umbrella advocacy group Committee for Education Funding. “They can’t wholesale change what the purpose of a grant program is.”

Take school integration and diversity. Biden has talked a lot about breaking down racial barriers in education. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris made a big deal out of school desegregation when she ran for president—at Biden’s expense. She’s a co-sponsor of the Senate’s Strength in Diversity Act, which would provide voluntary grants for schools to increase socioeconomic diversity and reduce racial isolation. The House passed its version of the bill earlier this year.

Is that legislation going to become law? It’s no sure thing. But would Biden’s Education Department use it for inspiration when deciding priorities for grants? It’s possible. (Go here for an Education Week Opinion piece related to this issue.)

The Obama Education Department, by the way, created a $12 million grant program for districts to use to increase school diversity and drew down money from another program—School Improvement Grants—to do it. That only came after the Obama team failed to convince Congress to fund a separate $120 million “Stronger Together” grant program that basically had the same goals. The Trump administration nixed these grants before they really got off the ground.

Here are a few other grant programs the Biden administration could use to push its policy preferences when awarding grants, along with their current funding:

  • Education Innovation and Research ($190 million): This funds efforts to develop and scale up “entrepreneurial” and evidence-based projects to improve student achievement and evaluations of those efforts. DeVos, a proponent of educational choice in various forms, has directed some EIR money to support vouchers for teachers’ professional development. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., responded by telling DeVos that Congress didn’t intend for EIR money to be used that way.

    That exchange underscores that Congress isn’t always happy with how the department uses these types of grants, and that grant priorities are to a certain extent inherently political.

  • Supporting Effective Educator Development ($80 million): The goal of these grants is to help develop the skills of teachers and principals. In the same vein as EIR, DeVos used some SEED money to bolster Opportunity Zones, a Trump administration economic priority.
  • Teacher Quality Partnership ($50.1 million): These grants focus on teacher training and recruitment as well as increasing diversity in the teaching workforce.
  • Promise Neighborhoods ($80 million): This grant program focuses on “pipeline” services in distressed communities such as childhood nutrition and family engagement.
  • School Safety National Activities ($105 million): This grant can support programs to improve school climate as well as safety. A Biden administration might use these grants to fund school counselors and psychologists, mental-health supports, and similar efforts.

Photo: President-elect Joe Biden (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

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