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As the Biden-Harris administration develops and publicizes their policy objectives, advocates and policymakers are beginning to see what specific priorities they have for America’s public education system. Two primary tasks have emerged for the U.S. Department of Education: ensure the equitable and effective distribution of COVID-19 relief funds authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP), and implement their vision for the future of education in America.

Ed Trust welcomes the initial actions taken by the administration, which have the potential to help the U.S. emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic a more equitable nation. But only with diligent, continued, and meaningful support, combined with assertive and effective Congressional action, will the U.S. experience the kind of structural reform needed to provide an education system that narrows the opportunity gap for students who have been the most underserved by the current system. Here are some of the highlights:

Supporting Students, Educators, and Families

Earlier this year, the administration released “COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 2: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs” a guide that provides recommendations for educators, school leaders, families, and state-level officials as they restart in-person learning and address students’ social, emotional, and academic needs. Their ideas on how best to accelerate learning echo Ed Trust’s recommendations from our recent briefs, including a focus on strong relationships with educators, targeted intensive tutoring, and expanded learning time. The handbook also emphasizes the importance of school nutrition programs. Additionally, the Department has created a Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse, designed to facilitate sharing vital information and best practices among different stakeholders.

The administration has moved most of the ARP funding to states but has required states to submit applications to access the remainder of funds. These applications are essential to ensure appropriate oversight, and require school leaders to explain how they will meet the needs of all students, particularly those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, including those from low-income backgrounds, students of color, English learners, students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, children in foster care, and migratory students. Alongside the application requirements, Ed Trust provides additional guidance to ensure that states and districts have a clear sense of what ARP funds can and cannot be used for, and do not violate federal maintenance of effort and equity provisions designed to prevent disproportionate cuts to education funding, especially for underserved students.

Expanding Early Childhood and K-12 Education

The administration has shared its education priorities in the form of two documents: the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, which are expected to be the administration’s next bite at the reconciliation apple and its FY22 discretionary budget request. The American Jobs Plan also proposes a series of long-overdue infrastructure investments to improve public school buildings and early childhood facilities, combined with a broader commitment to expanding broadband and subsidies for low-income families, making inroads to close the digital divide. It also contains a $100 billion proposal for workforce development, systemic improvements, and supporting workers displaced and otherwise harmed by the pandemic. Ed Trust will be eager to see details on how this new funding can be both allocated equitably and used to facilitate lasting change within our nation’s workforce system.

The American Families Plan contains $225 billion to increase middle- and low-income families’ access to affordable childcare, as well as a separate $200 billion program to expand access to universal pre-K. Additionally, the plan asks Congress to extend the fully refundable Child Tax Credit created by ARP until 2025, and make permanent the recent expansion of the Child Care and Dependent Tax Credit. These proposals would be transformative for families — and the U.S. as a whole. As Congress drafts legislation to implement these priorities, they should prioritize those families most affected by the pandemic and enact systemic improvements, like preventing harmful disciplinary practices and creating systems to collect better disaggregated data about affordability and access.

The FY22 budget request also contains several increases in investments for programs essential to K-12 and early childhood educational systems. The largest increase is double funding for ESSA Title I-A, which would be hugely beneficial for students who face the greatest injustices, and would represent a historic commitment from the federal government to funding equity. However, it is equally as important that the federal commitment trigger a response from states and localities to examine and improve their own funding formulas; that is where the bulk of education funding is located and distributed.

Additionally, the FY22 budget request makes necessary funding increases to programs authorized by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); proposes new funds to foster diverse student bodies and for schools to hire more nurses, school counselors, and mental health professionals in the wake of the pandemic; and increases support for Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). It remains to be seen how the latter increases, combined with the recent changes to the Child Tax Credit in ARP, will conform to the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to achieving universal pre-K, seen in the American Families Plan.

Making Higher Education More Affordable

The Biden-Harris administration will seek an overall $1,800 increase in the maximum Pell Grant for college students from low-income backgrounds and extend it to DACA-eligible students as a part of their FY22 discretionary budget proposal and the American Families Plan. While this is a first step toward the promised doubling of the Pell Grant, much more can be done now to reach that goal. The purchasing power of the Pell Grant has declined precipitously — from covering about 80% of the full cost of a public four-year college a few decades ago to covering less than 30% today — forcing students and families to choose between taking burdensome loans or forgoing higher education. Congress should double Pell in upcoming American Jobs Plan and/or American Families Plan legislation.

Ed Trust is excited to see the American Families Plan contain a proposal to create a federal-state partnership to support tuition-free community college, and we call on Congress to include that provision in upcoming legislation as well. State divestment from public education has starved public colleges of needed resources for supporting their students and pushed selective-admission public colleges to recruit and enroll higher-income, out-of-state students instead of serving as engines of upward mobility for students with the greatest need. Creating a federal-state partnership for college affordability is vital to ensure that states contribute to their public higher education systems and that those systems provide equitable college access for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. A federal-state partnership could be a first step toward truly debt-free college for students from low-income backgrounds and more affordable college for all. But the details remain unclear for now. To make the most lasting impact for underserved students, any federal-state partnership for college affordability must prioritize equity, grow to incorporate four-year institutions in addition to community colleges, and include sufficient resources and incentives to require states to invest substantially more in higher education.

Ed Trust looks forward to continuing to work with the Department and Congress to achieve these goals in the coming months.