Education Policy Update

January 21, 2021

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On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, President Biden was sworn into office. As one of his first official acts as President, Biden signed 17 executive actions, one of which was asking the Acting Secretary of Education to extend the pause on interest and payments for federal student loans. A fact sheet released by the White House states that President Biden will ask the Department of Education to extend these provisions until at least September 30, 2021. These provisions are currently set to expire on January 31, 2021.

What to Expect from Biden’s Department of Education

Miguel Cardona 

On December 22, 2020, President Biden announced Miguel Cardona as his nominee to be Secretary of Education. Cardona currently serves as Connecticut Commissioner of Education. He began his career as a public school teacher and then served as a principal for 10 years. Prior to being appointed the Commissioner of Education by Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, Cardona was the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Connecticut State University and has a master’s and doctorate in Education from the University of Connecticut.

During the pandemic, Cardona gained national attention for being a major proponent of keeping schools open. Reopening schools will likely be his top priority as Secretary, if confirmed. President Biden has pledged to open schools within his first 100 days in office.

In his speech following the announcement of his nomination, Cardona emphasized the need for universal early childhood education and “quality social and emotional supports” for students. Cardona will also likely look at rolling back many of the regulations put in place by President Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Cardona is expected to be confirmed by the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Cindy Marten

Earlier this week, President Biden named Cindy Marten as his choice for Deputy Secretary of Education. Marten currently serves as the San Diego Unified School District Superintendent. Like Cardona, Marten also began her education career in the classroom as a teacher. Marten earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse and her master’s degree in Teaching and Learning from the University of California, San Diego.

Marten must also be confirmed by the Senate.

What to Expect from the 117th Congress

On January 5, 2021, Georgia elected Raphael Warnock (D) and Jon Ossof (D) to the U.S. Senate. Their victories in the run-off elections flipped control of the U.S. Senate from Republicans to Democrats. As a result, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will become majority leader, and Democrats will lead the committees. While this is a huge win for Democrats, their majority is very narrow as the Senate is evenly split with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Vice President Kamala Harris (D) will serve as the tie-breaker.

This narrow majority means progressive policy proposals are unlikely to pass as Republican support will be needed to get legislation (60 votes in the Senate) over the finish line. However, Democrats can use, and will likely attempt to use, the budget reconciliation process (requires simple majority of 51 votes), which exempts certain legislation from the filibuster, to pass a few key priorities without needing the help of Republicans. While it is unclear what exactly would be included in the budget reconciliation package or how large it would be, student loan forgiveness is likely to be included.

Other priorities for the Senate, as well as the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, include another coronavirus relief package and confirming President Biden’s cabinet nominees. It remains to be seen when the Senate will conduct the impeachment trial of former President Trump.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP)

With the Democrats taking control of the Senate, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) will be chair of the Senate HELP Committee. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) will be Ranking Member.

Education priorities for the HELP Committee under Murray’s leadership include addressing the coronavirus pandemic, helping schools reopen, and reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Murray is also a strong advocate of early childhood education, so the committee may focus on that under her leadership as well. One of the HELP committee’s first tasks will be to advance Miguel Cardona’s nomination to be Secretary of Education.

President Biden’s American Rescue Plan

Ahead of his inauguration, President Biden released the “American Rescue Plan,” a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus package. The plan calls for $160 billion to create a national vaccine program, expand testing, create a public health jobs program, and “take other necessary steps” to combat COVID-19. 

The plan also calls for another round of stimulus checks ($1,400/person), increased unemployment benefits ($400/week) through September (currently set to expire in March), the restoration of emergency paid leave, and funding for rental assistance, education, child care, and small businesses.

While the Biden Administration is hoping for bipartisan approval of the package, they are also discussing the possibility of using budget reconciliation as way to get the bill through Congress.

Below is a summary of key provisions on education and workforce.


Biden’s plan calls for $170 billion for education. Of that appropriation $130 billion would go to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund, $35 billion would go to the Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER) fund, and $5 billion would go to the Governors Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund.


Biden’s rescue plan encourages Congress to authorize OSHA to issue workplace safety standards and raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. It also includes “historic investments in expand the public health workforce.” According to the proposal, the plan would fund 100,000 public health workers to help in the fight against COVID-19. Biden’s plan also focuses on expanded child care assistance to help “parents return to work,” including calling for $15 billion in funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant program as well as tax credits to help with the cost of childcare.

In Case You Missed It

On December 27, President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 into law, which provides $1.4 trillion for FY21 appropriations and $900 billion for coronavirus relief. The relief package includes significant new funding for the Department of Education as well as additional funding for small businesses among other important measures.


The Department of Education received $82 billion for the education funding streams created under the CARES Act. Of this appropriation, the Governors Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund received $4.1 billion, of which $2.75 billion was earmarked for private schools. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund received $54.3 billion, and the Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER) Fund received $22.7 billion.

The Department of Education began releasing funding for the GEER Fund and the ESSER fund last week. Allocations and guidance documents for the GEER fund can be found here, and allocations and guidance for the ESSER fund can be found here. We expect additional guidance on the HEER Fund in the coming days, and when it is available, it can be found here.

Small Business

The relief package allocated $284 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program. Applicants can apply for their first or second loan. First time PPP borrowers could begin applying for the loan on January 11, 2021, and second draw loan borrowers could begin applying for the loan on January 13, 2021. The last day to apply for a PPP loan is March 31, 2021. Additional guidance on the PPP program can be found here.

State Update 

As of this week, 44 state legislatures have started their 2021 session. The McGuireWoods Consulting Education Team is currently tracking hundreds of bills for our education clients across all 50 states and at the federal level.

View a full list of state legislative session dates here.