How Election Day Could Alter COVID-19 Aid Talks for Education

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 23, 2020 7 min read
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It’ll be no surprise if Election Day is the turning point in coronavirus relief negotiations. But what exactly might happen after all the votes are counted and there are definitive winners and losers?

Without those results, it’s impossible to say definitively, of course. But based on conversations with a few veteran Washington education lobbyists, it’s possible to sketch out scenarios that hinge on control of the presidency and the Senate, with the House all but certain to remain under Democratic control. Those scenarios range from the passage of a relatively small relief package not long after the election, to a big aid deal that includes money for longstanding federal education grants—but doesn’t get completed until well into 2021.

Although Washington’s coronavirus aid talks continue and they could in theory produce a deal before the election results are clear, that possibility seems increasingly remote. So we’ll forgive you if you’ve switched off the drama. But here’s a quick recap.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin have spoken for weeks without a decisive breakthrough, after several COVID-19 aid bills considered over the last several months have stalled out. President Donald Trump’s team and Pelosi have been discussion a deal worth in the range of $1.8 trillion to $2 trillion. Estimate vary, but such a deal could include a figure in the neighborhood of $150 billion in a main stabilization fund for education, although it’s unclear how that would be split between K-12 and higher education.

But Republicans in charge of the Senate—including Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee—have said the price tag of such a package is simply too expensive. Meanwhile, a $500 billion relief bill that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced earlier this week was blocked by Senate Democrats

So what might come next? We spoke with lobbyists below without identifying them in order to help them speak candidly about a few different and relatively plausible post-election scenarios.

‘That Becomes Crazytown’

Many schools have reopened their doors, and some people’s fears about in-person classes spreading the virus have—rightly or wrongly—have faded. Yet it’s unlikely lawmakers will cut education funding out of any relief deal or reduce it dramatically, according to sources. Among other things, Pelosi has highlighted education in her public messages about negotiations.

And schools would also benefit significantly from any relief for state and local governments, although the size of that portion of the relief package been a major obstacle in COVID-19 talks.

Nevertheless, in the context of relief negotiations, “I think the zenith for schools in terms of their political power was in that July period,” one Washington education lobbyist told us, referring to the blitz of attention on education from Trump and others not long before the school year started. “That was probably when there was the most leverage just on schools. Schools have fallen from one or two [on the list of priorities] to four or five.”

If GOP maintains control of the Senate, McConnell—who has his own election to win on Nov. 3—might see it as vindication for his preference for a relatively small relief package.

In one scenario, a returning Trump administration loses some interest in what the next round of virus relief for schools looks like and how it would work. In addition, based on that $500 billion bill from McConnell we mentioned above, Pelosi might be boxed into agreeing to smaller numbers across the board in the name of urgency.

“I am hopeful that we just need to get past this pressure point of the election period,” one advocate for a national education organization told us. “I just can’t imagine that Congress is just going to let schools starve.”

If former Vice President Joe Biden wins and Democrats win control of the Senate next year, it’s possible Pelosi would try to get one relief bill done before Biden is inaugurated that focuses on things like relief for small businesses and expanded unemployment benefits, and count on getting another one done after Biden takes office. McConnell, of course, might reject that idea out of hand. And whether such an attempt by Pelosi to “double dip” might be used against her and her caucus later, either in public rhetoric or closed-door negotiations, is another open question.

Remember: Earlier this month, Trump declared he was ending relief talks and would sign a big package after Election Day. He reversed himself hours later and has since called for a large relief package, but he hasn’t clarified what would happen if he were to lose on Nov. 3. Would he care about generating goodwill and getting plaudits on his way out of the White House by signing a landmark relief package?

“Maybe Trump won’t sign anything. If you have Trump losing and he doesn’t want to play, that becomes crazytown,” the Washington education lobbyist said. These and other factors mean that in the lame-duck period, this person said, it would be “really hard for a deal to get done.”

Another person said that compared to the swift, bipartisan support for the CARES Act in March, it doesn’t feel like Washington has the wherewithal to pass something before the end of this calendar year. The aid talks won’t be the only thing on lawmakers’ plate after the election, regardless of which party controls the White House and Senate next year: Congress has a deadline of Dec. 11 to adopt a fiscal 2021 spending bill before a partial government shutdown commences.

On a related point: What one person referred to as the “poison pill” of requiring some K-12 relief to be conditioned on whether schools hold at least some in-person classes likely gets abandoned in negotiations if Trump loses. That’s because it’s largely been viewed as a Trump administration priority, but not something Senate Republicans really want.

Depending on how much leverage each side has, both sides might ultimately agree to a pot of cash on the side for private schools, a proposal outlined in a July relief bill from Senate Republicans. But the school choice expansion pushed prominently by a few GOP senators might be much less likely to survive after Nov. 3.

“If we don’t have a president insisting on a barrier to successful negotiation in the education provisions, I think it becomes much easier,” said the national education advocate, referring to conditioning aid on school buildings reopening. “I think funding for nonpublic schools is less of a barrier to agreement.”

A Time-Intensive Process

If Democrats control Congress and the White House next year, but don’t have 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster of a very big (think $3 trillion or so) relief bill, what happens next?

There’s a way for Democrats to pass coronavirus relief for education and other priorities through a simple majority, not 60 senators, through something called budget reconciliation.

We won’t get into all the nuts and bolts of that process. But depending on what Democrats decide, it could provide the kind of K-12 relief that many have been begging for since last spring. And in this scenario, lawmakers could choose to direct more money to longstanding federal education grants that could be particularly useful to help schools address the pandemic.

Among other things, one person told us, “You could put $20 billion in mandatory spending into Title I, or Title II, or Title IV, or IDEA. Depending on what Congress wants to do, there are options to push mandatory funding down into K-12.” (Mandatory funding is spending that’s outside the typical federal appropriations process for each fiscal year.)

Here’s a quick aside: Biden has said repeatedly that he wants to triple Title I funding for disadvantaged students. Annual Title I funding now stands at roughly $16.4 billion, and in recent years it has increased by several hundred million dollars. So tripling it in one year, or even four, is incredibly unlikely. Yet a virus relief bill that pushes money into Title I might help a Biden administration make at least some progress towards that goal, albeit in a way that wasn’t imagined a year ago when he proposed tripling Title I.

But there’s at least one major potential drawback for schools in budget reconciliation: The process could take a lot of time due to congressional rules. Just because it would avoid a filibuster doesn’t mean it would get done with a snap of the fingers.

In fact, one person told us, it’s perfectly plausible that a reconciliation bill might not get done until the end of spring. That could mean that schools go through the entire 2020-21 academic year without Congress passing a new relief bill. “That’s a long time,” that person said. “If you’re in the middle of a pandemic and that’s how you’re counting on getting money out to people, think of that from a K-12 standpoint.”

In addition, budget reconciliation isn’t set up for lawmakers to make policy changes, such as changing the formula for how Title I aid is distributed, or altering what waivers the U.S. Department of Education can or can’t provide.

Ultimately, what happens next could be quite different from 2009, when President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act less than a month after taking office. The pandemic’s effects on K-12 education have been different than the Great Recession’s impact, and so has the political response since March. And it’s hard for everyone to come away from a big agreement in Washington completely satisfied.

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