Congressional Democrats are proposing $75 billion over two years to help schools reengage with missing students, and to help them diagnose and address learning interruptions and other issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Learning Recovery Act, which is being introduced Thursday in the U.S. House of Representatives, is one of three bills lawmakers are rolling out to address various K-12 education needs.
Taken together, they could become part of the vehicle on Capitol Hill for President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan for K-12 education. However, they aren’t written to precisely match all parts of Biden’s blueprint and could also serve as stand-alone bills.
Versions of the other two bills being rolled out this week were introduced in the last Congress by Democrats.
The Save Education Jobs Act would provide up to $261 billion over 10 years, and would save up to 3.9 million K-12 jobs, according to its supporters, including 2.6 million teacher jobs as well as positions for social workers, school bus drivers, and more.
And the Reopen and Rebuild the America’s Schools Act would provide $100 billion in federal aid and another $30 billion in bond authority for schools to upgrade HVAC systems, improve water quality, and otherwise upgrade their infrastructure.
The Biden plan includes $130 billion for K-12 education that could be used for everything from virus mitigation measures to addressing academic needs. There’s also $350 billion in the bill to shore up state, local, and territorial budgets.
One measure focuses on ‘extended learning’
Fears about the impact of the pandemic on students’ short- and long-term academic progress, in addition to its toll on their mental health, have been prominent and unsettling issues throughout the crisis.
Some research from last year indicates that COVID-19 may have hurt students’ academic progress in math more than in reading, but many questions remain about exactly how many students, especially those who were vulnerable before the pandemic, have been affected. Strategies for academic recovery have become a significant concern for educators. And everyone from elementary school principals to parents whose children are in remote-learning environments has a stake in addressing the issue.
The Learning Recovery Act is focused on “school extension” or similar programs designed to provide additional learning time and related services.
The bill would allocate money to local school districts through the federal Title I formula, which provides aid to disadvantaged students. States could reserve up to 5 percent of the funding for their own use, and would have to prioritize schools with large shares of disadvantaged students or those acutely affected by the pandemic when it comes to technical assistance.
At the local level, districts must demonstrate how they will use Learning Recovery Act funds to “locate and reengage within the school community missing students,” according to a summary of the bill. They would also have to show their plans to “diagnose, measure and reduce unfinished learning” among different subgroups of students identified under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Ultimately, districts using Learning Recovery Act money would have to provide at least one type of “extended learning” program.
Under the bill, schools could spend money on things like trauma screenings, putting after-school programs back in place, and additional mental health supports. The bill would not affect educators’ collective bargaining rights.
In general, districts would have to make schools with large shares of students from low-income backgrounds a priority for these services. The $75 billion would be split evenly over fiscal years 2021 and 2022. For some context, this fiscal year’s federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students is about $16.5 billion.
A summary of the bill says it would require districts to commit to a “maintenance of equity” requirement for their high-poverty schools; this has previously been defined as, among other things, a requirement that states and local districts must distribute their own funding in an “equitable” fashion, in order to access federal funds.
States would also be bound by such a requirement, as well as a mandate to maintain their spending at certain levels and not to cut funding and use federal aid to replace it.
This proposal doesn’t come as a surprise. In a December interview with Education Week, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, said that identifying and addressing “learning loss” would be a top priority for him in 2021. Scott specifically highlighted the idea of Congress helping to pay for things like summer school.
Separately, the bill would authorize the Institute for Education Sciences to study strategies and interventions for learning recovery.
Jobs and school HVAC systems would get priority in another bill
The exact impact of the pandemic-riddles economy on school budgets is still not clear, and some states could end up in much better fiscal health this year than others. But education officials are still worried that economic uncertainty, especially if the federal government doesn’t do more to shore up state and local budgets, could wreak havoc on many schools’ bottom lines in the months ahead.
The Save Education Jobs Act would guarantee funding to all states for at least six years, or until the national unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent or less (if that occurs later). States that continue to experience high unemployment would be guaranteed funding up to fiscal 2030. The unemployment rate for December 2020 was 6.7 percent.
At least 90 percent of the money would have to pay for school employee salaries and benefits. Schools would also have to maintain their own spending at certain levels and distribute state and local funding in an equitable fashion in order to tap the money.
Meanwhile, the House adopted a version of the new school infrastructure bill last year, as part of the Moving America Forward Act that did not become law.
The Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act is designed to help schools in high-poverty areas. The money authorized through it could be used to upgrade heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems in schools. It would also require states to keep a database on the condition of public school facilities.
The condition of school buildings, and specifically their ventilation systems, has been an ongoing concern during the pandemic among those worried about the ability of students and educators to spread the virus. A federal watchdog’s report from last year found that in more than 40 percent of districts, at least half the schools needed upgrades or repairs to their HVAC systems.
Political factors come to the forefront
“We are seeing existing inequities exacerbated,” Rep. Scott said in a statement. “The package of bills introduced today reflects our commitment to helping students, educators, and parents overcome the pandemic, reopen our schools, and finally access a quality, public education.”
Remember that Republicans have expressed distaste for Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan, which has a total price tag of $1.9 trillion. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, for example, told reporters this month that a $900 billion federal relief bill was just enacted at the end of 2020, and that he’s not very interested in another big COVID-19 relief package in the “immediate future.”
If this sentiment prevails among GOP lawmakers, Biden and congressional Democrats would have to resort to a legislative maneuver known as reconciliation to get the $1.9 trillion or anything like it passed by both the House and Senate.
That process would allow Democrats in control of the Senate to pass it on a simple majority vote and avoid a filibuster. But budget reconciliation takes a relatively long amount of time to complete. Any bill relying on the process has to wind its way through a foggy maze of procedures before it gets to the president’s desk. The weather might be significantly warmer than it is now in Washington, D.C., before any bill relying on reconciliation becomes law.
So it’s possible that the Learning Recovery Act—if lawmakers were to include it in any COVID-19 relief package Biden signs—would have a bigger impact on the summer months and the 2021-22 school year than the last few months of the current school year.