2020 Election Recap and What Should Be on the 117th Congress’ To-Do List
The 2020 election cycle ended last week with Democrats controlling the White House and narrowed majority in the House of Representatives — with Senate control dependent on the outcomes of two Georgia runoff elections in early January. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will not only have to build a new administration when they take office in 2021, they also will have to manage and overcome the greatest public health crisis of the modern era in a deeply divided nation. Defeating COVID-19, building back the economy, and unifying the country will be at the top of the administration’s and Congress’ very long “to-do” list. In addition, we cannot forget that the pandemic has left millions of our most vulnerable and historically marginalized students across the country without the resources and investments they need and deserve to overcome both new and enduring opportunity and achievement gaps. These realities will weigh deeply on the minds of a new administration.
With the Democrats maintaining control of the House, Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) will remain at the top of the dais and continue his efforts to advance critical pieces of legislation on school infrastructure, Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization, oversight of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and bolstering education jobs in the wake of COVID-19. Republican Ranking Member Virginia Foxx (R-NC) will keep her committee leadership position as well. New members will not be selected for the committee until January; however, we can expect some shuffling among its members.
While House education authorizers remain consistent, House appropriators overseeing education funding will encounter a leadership shakeup. House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey (D-NY) announced her retirement in 2020. The race for this key leadership position in the Democratic Caucus is between Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL).
On the Senate side, control of the chamber is less certain until Georgia voters return to the polls in early January to determine their senators. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) also announced his retirement in 2020, and it remains to be seen which Republican committee member — likely either Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) or Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) — will be tapped to replace him. Should Republicans maintain control of the Senate, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) will remain ranking member of the committee. Should Democrats prevail in the runoff elections, roles on the committee will be reversed, the chamber will be split 50-50, and Vice President Harris would be responsible for any tie-breaking votes.
Election Implications for the Lame-Duck Session
Since passage of the CARES Act in March, Congress and the White House have continuously debated additional COVID-19 relief, but failed to reach a legislative agreement before the election. It remains to be seen if a deal can be reached in the lame-duck session, or rather the first 100 days of a Biden administration. We anticipate the size, scope, and timing of such a package will become clearer when members of Congress return to Washington and negotiations resume. At The Education Trust, we hope that lawmakers will include the following in a comprehensive COVID-19 package:
Funding for state and local governments, including education stabilization funds for schools, colleges, and students with strong maintenance of effort and equity provisions; resources to enable online learning for students unable to connect at home; increased nutrition assistance; and an extension of student loan relief well into 2021.
Additionally, Congress needs to pass FY21 government funding by December 11th to avoid massive cuts to both defense and non-defense (including education) spending, or another continuing resolution (CR) to push that deadline into the new year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently indicated that he and Democratic leaders aim to pass an FY21 omnibus appropriations deal before the end of the year.
There has also been chatter that lawmakers might take up higher education legislation in a lame duck session given the retirement of Senator Alexander, who has made FAFSA reform a cornerstone of his tenure as Senate HELP chair. We anticipate that Senator Alexander will push for his 2019 marker bill — the FAFSA Simplification Act of 2019 — in a lame duck session, a bill cosponsored by Democrat Doug Jones (D-AL) who was defeated in his Alabama Senate race last week. We will continue to monitor the movement of potential higher education legislation.
What Should be on the 117th Congress’ Agenda?
As the nation continues to grapple with COVID-19, an economic crisis, and the continued legacy of slavery evident in the racial inequities prior to and during the pandemic, there are many issues that Congress must address. We hope that lawmakers will provide a significant, new investment in education and ensure this investment advances equity by taking these high priority actions with haste:
- Support and incentivize states to increase equity in their school funding systems and increase funding for Title I of ESSA to support high-need schools.
- Make college more affordable by doubling the Pell Grant and expanding the program to include students who are incarcerated and those with DACA and TPS protections.
- Pass a clean DREAM Act to protect Dreamers from the risk of deportation and give them a path to citizenship.
- Make significant investments in the early childhood education system by passing the Child Care for Working Families Act and increase funding for existing programs that can help meet the need for quality early childhood education, including Head Start, Early Head Start, Preschool Development Grants Birth through Five, and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG).
- Congress should pass the Ending PUSHOUT Act and the Protecting Our Students in Schools Act of 2020 to increase access to safe, equitable, and positive learning environments, particularly for Black students.
- Congress should support and incentivize states to establish goals to recruit, retain, and support educators of color; increase funding for HBCUs, HSIs, TCUs, and other MSIs, as well as increase funding for Higher Education Act (HEA) Title II-Part A; and fund the Augustus Hawkins Centers of Excellence Grant program.
- Pass the Advanced Coursework Equity Act and increase ESSA Title IV funding to allow for more students of color and students from low-income backgrounds to access and get credit for AP/IB courses to prepare them for college and career.
Of course, there is much more that Congress and a new administration can and should do at the federal level to promote equity and improve opportunities and outcomes for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Ed Trust will continue our work with lawmakers and administration officials to ensure that our nation moves closer to the promise of an equitable, excellent education each day.