It has been a long time coming, but congressional leaders and the White House were able to agree on a massive legislative package that included all the FY 2021 appropriations bills and a $900 billion COVID-19 relief proposal. Passed by Congress and signed by President Trump on Monday, December 21, the bill contains desperately needed funds to support schools as they continue to navigate the ongoing pandemic.

FY 2021 Budget Package

Due to budget cap constraints, the funding levels in the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies bill were always going to be limited. Overall, the U.S. Department of Education received $73.5 billion in funding, a $785 million increase over FY 2020 levels. Many of NASSP’s priority programs were either level funded from FY 2020 or received very slight increases: 

  • Title I: $16.5 billion, a $227 million increase over FY 2020 
  • IDEA grants to states: $12.9 billion, a $186 million increase over FY 2020 
  • Title II: $2.1 billion, a $11 million increase over FY 2020 
  • Title IV, Part A: $1.2 billion, a $10 million increase over FY 2020
  • School safety national activities: $106 million, a $1 million increase over FY 2020
  • Comprehensive literacy development grants: $192 million, level funded from FY 2020
  • Career and technical education grants to states: $1.33 billion, a $52 million increase over FY 2020 

With the FY 2021 appropriations completed, the deck is now cleared for the 117th Congress to begin working on the FY 2022 budget when they are sworn in come January. One key storyline to monitor is the expiration of budget caps placed on spending from the Budget Control Act of 2011. With the caps out of the way, the door is open for long overdue increases in federal education spending. Another factor that could benefit education funding is the election of Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT-3) as the new chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. Rep. DeLauro has long been a longtime champion for public education and was the most recent recipient of NASSP’s Congressional Champion Award.  

COVID-19 Relief Bill

Since the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March, Republicans and Democrats were stymied in their efforts to provide the nation with much-needed additional COVID-19 pandemic relief. After months of stalled negotiations and posturing, the White House and congressional leaders were finally able to come to an agreement on a $900 billion package. The bill includes:

  • Education funding in the amount of $82 billion, broken down similarly to the allocation of the CARES Act:
    • An allocation of $4.05 billion goes to the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) for governors to spend on education in their state however they see fit. A portion of this funding can be reserved for private schools, a Republican priority in the bill. Private school funding is limited to COVID-related needs such as PPE, testing, social distancing, and ed-tech, and it cannot be spent on tuition and professional development. Services and materials also must be secular and nonideological.
    • K–12 schools receive $54.3 billion through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Fund. This funding will be allocated to states based on their share of Title I students.
    • The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund receives $2.72 billion.
  • There was $7 billion reserved for broadband purposes, but unfortunately, none of these funds were specifically reserved for the federal E-rate program. NASSP has consistently advocated that at least $12 billion be provided for the E-rate program to help address connectivity concerns for students and educators.

Since the passage of the CARES Act, NASSP has advocated that the next federal relief package provide at least $175 billion in aid for K–12 education and $12 billion for the E-rate program to adequately assist our nation’s schools and students as they continue to navigate the pandemic. NASSP’s new CEO Ronn Nozoe affirmed that this new bill should just be the beginning of additional aid for K–12 schools. ““The $54 billion earmarked for K–12 relief is a start, maybe a down payment, but it is woefully inadequate as the final word on COVID relief for schools,” Nozoe said in a statement. “Conditions will be even worse than 2009. Budgets are shrinking while needs are expanding from the pandemic. Schools need funding not just to stabilize budgets shaken by local economies, but to accelerate learning after the pandemic. Unless Congress gets serious for the long term about supporting their own public schools, we’ll be cutting into bone—fewer teachers, larger classes, and less social support for kids at precisely their time of greatest need.”

Nozoe also expressed his frustration with the lack of funding provided for the E-rate program. He added, “The pandemic exposed the digital inequities among our students. Sufficient, reliable broadband and device access is an essential condition for high-quality education. Zeroing out E-rate still regards that access as a luxury.”  

Looking Ahead to 2021

2021 promises to be a year of change in the education world, with the policy and political landscapes shifting dramatically. First, the election of President-Elect Joe Biden will mean a new U.S. Secretary of Education, and the nomination announcement could come any day now. As school leaders wait to see who it will be, a group of top contenders has emerged. Among them, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia has risen to the top of Biden’s short list in recent days. But could a leader of one of the nation’s largest teacher’s unions get confirmed in a Republican-controlled Senate? Other names being reported include Dean Emeritus of the Howard University School of Education Leslie Fenwick and Connecticut’s Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona. Both Cardona and Fenwick could also face a contentious confirmation process if nominated. Whoever is selected will have a difficult task of navigating schools through the remainder of the pandemic and determining how to best aid schools and districts as they try to address the learning loss students suffered over the past year.  

Further muddying the picture is the unknown makeup of the 117th Congress. What we do know is that Democrats retained control of the House but now have a much thinner majority in the lower chamber, which stands at 222 Democrats to 212 Republicans, with one seat still undecided. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (CA-12) won her reelection for speaker and is now faced with the difficult task of keeping her members united to pass Democratic priorities and legislation through the chamber. On the Senate side, Republicans are currently slated to control the chamber with a split of 50-48. The Democrats do have the opportunity to wrestle control from Republicans though, as the two seats in Georgia are still undecided and head to January runoff elections. Democrats will need to win both seats to bring the Senate to a 50-50 split, which would create Democratic control with Vice President-Elect Harris as the tiebreaking vote in the chamber. If Republicans win just one of the seats, they will retain control of the chamber.

The NASSP Policy & Advocacy Center is planning ahead for 2021 and has developed a list of federal policy priorities for school leaders that has already been shared with the Biden transition team and will be shared with the 117th Congress in early January. The policy priorities will be posted on the NASSP website next month, and members and stakeholders will have the opportunity to sign a petition personally endorsing the policy agenda. Stay tuned for future School of Thought blog posts to see the list when it is released!

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