Education Policy Update

April 2, 2021

Pardon Our Dust

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In This Issue: Department of Education hosts National Safe School Reopening Summit, Senate HELP Committee holds confirmation hearing for Cindy Marten, and earmarks make their return to Congress.

National Safe School Reopening Summit

On March 24, 2021, the Department of Education hosted the National Safe School Reopening Summit. According to the Department of Education, the summit is part of a larger effort to help support and provide resources to schools as they work to reopen. In his opening remarks at the summit, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona noted that 45 percent of elementary and middle schools are offering in-person learning. He also noted that only 28 percent of Black students, 33 percent of Latino students, 15 percent of Asian students, and 50 percent of white students are attending in-person school. Secretary Cardona highlighted the $130 billion appropriated under the American Rescue Plan to help schools reopen. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky also gave opening remarks, discussing the CDC’s updated guidelines for safe practices and recommendations for students. She said the goal is for students to return to the classroom using science and research-based practices.

The summit consisted of three panels: (1) Lessons from the Field — Implementing CDC’s K-12 Operational Strategy to Keep Students, Educators, and Staff Safe; (2) Technical Assistance from CDC and ED: Implementing CDC’s Guidance to Keep Students, Educators, and Staff Safe; (3) Lessons from the Field — Supporting All Students: Addressing the Academic, Social, and Emotional Needs of Students with a Focus on Equity. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris also provided remarks at the summit. We have provided the key takeaways from the summit below. To watch the summit in its entirety, please click here.

Lessons from the Field — Implementing CDC’s K-12 Operational Strategy to Keep Students, Educators, and Staff Safe

The first panel consisted of members of the reopening teams from the Cleveland School District as well as the New York City School District. A common theme for both groups was a focus on transparency, open communication, and involvement of all stakeholders as critical components to successfully reopening schools. Both school districts paid particular attention to the social and emotional needs of both their students and staff, providing programs and professional development to address these needs. Finally, from a facilities point of view, Cleveland and New York put health and safety as their top priority in their mission to reopen schools.

Technical Assistance from CDC and ED: Implementing CDC’s Guidance to Keep Students, Educators, and Staff Safe

The second panel of the summit consisted of representatives from the CDC as well as the Department of Education to discuss safety guidelines for reopening and maintaining in-person school. Greta Massetti from the CDC spoke on how research has shown that the current policies in place have been working and provided a summary on the updated guidance on social distancing policies. Donna Harris-Aikens, Senior Advisor for Policy and Planning at the Department of Education spoke on Volume 1 of the Department’s guidance for safe reopening of schools, reiterating that current measures, if employed, work and schools should be diligent following the guidelines put in place by the CDC and the Department of Education.

Lessons from the Field — Supporting All Students: Addressing the Academic, Social, and Emotional Needs of Students with a Focus on Equity

The final panel consisted of members of the Cajon Valley Union School District and the Tulsa School District speaking to what they have been doing to meet the social and emotional needs of their students and staff. Cajon Valley has shifted their priorities to develop happy kids, in healthy relationships on a path to gainful employment. In doing so, they have changed their approach to teaching students and the community. The message was clear that knowing student and family needs and a focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) was the top priority of the school district.

The Tulsa School district made a point to mention that SEL is a lever for equity and their focus was to create relational and safe environments. Their big takeaway from the past year is the improvement in communication and support, sharing what has worked and not worked, and making sure teachers’ voices are heard.

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Secretary Cardona’s Remarks

Secretary Cardona’s closing comments focused on how the Department of Education is looking to be a partner and provide resources. Cardona made a point to introduce the Summer Learning and Enrichment Collaborative, which is a partnership with the National Governors Association and CCSSO to create impactful programs.

President Biden stated that $81 billion of the $130 billion from the American Rescue Plan will hit states on March 24, 2021. With funds available now, the President wants them used quickly and effectively.

Senate HELP Confirmation Hearing for Cindy Marten

On March 24, 2021, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing to consider the nomination of Cindy Marten to be Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. Marten, who was formerly superintendent of San Diego Unified, is expected to receive bipartisan support from the committee.  

Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC) said he is “inclined to support [Marten’s] nomination,” despite “many reservations.” Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) said she expects to hold a committee vote advancing Marten’s nomination as soon as possible. Barring any unforeseen issues, Marten is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate.

During the confirmation hearing, several key themes emerged, including (1) addressing learning loss; (2) reopening schools; (3) addressing inequities and the achievement gap; and (4) the importance of community college and career and technical education. Other issues discussed included school choice, helping students with disabilities, teacher shortages, and college affordability and student loans.

Addressing Learning Loss

Chairwoman Murray, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) discussed the critical need to mitigate learning loss due to the pandemic. Chairwoman Murray asked Marten what steps the Department of Education will take to identify and address learning loss. Marten said that the American Rescue Plan will provide critical investment to help address learning loss and detailed what San Diego Unified is doing this summer to create summer enrichment programs for students. Sen. Kaine emphasized that he hopes federal aid will help address learning loss and local education agencies will use the funds to “experiment” with the school calendar and summer programs for this summer and 2022. Marten said she appreciated Sen. Kaine’s forward thinking and agreed that forward planning is important. Throughout her questioning, Marten also highlighted the need for social and emotional support as students return to the classroom.

In regards to assessments, Sen. Burr asked Marten about waiving federal testing requirements, since federal accountability requirements have been waived. Marten stressed that assessments are essential for making the best decisions about our students.

Reopening Schools

Sens. Burr, Romney (R-UT), and Collins (R-ME) pressed Marten on opening schools. Sen. Romney asked Marten why public schools were closed, but private schools remained open in San Diego. Marten emphasized that school reopening decisions were based off the advice of numerous stakeholders, including the CDC, local health departments, and other local experts. In response, Sen. Romney said he hoped that the Department of Education would provide guidance on reopening schools and not leave it to the individual school districts to “get [their] own experts.”  Sen. Collins asked Marten if she agreed with the CDC school reopening guidance and what she will do in her new role, if confirmed, to ensure schools open this fall. Marten said she appreciated the guidance of the CDC and believes the investments from the American Rescue Plan will help ensure schools are open in the fall.

Addressing Inequities and the Achievement Gap

Chairwoman Murray said we need to commit addressing inequitable school funding and providing rigorous curriculum. She asked Marten how she plans to address long-standing inequities. Marten replied that she will implement the best, evidenced-based practices. Sen. Murkowski (R-AK) asked Marten how she addressed the achievement gap as superintendent of San Diego Unified. Marten noted that San Diego Unified is a positive outlier in Black and Latino student performance.

Importance of Community College and Career and Technical Education (CTE)

Sens. Kaine, Hassan (D-NH), and Marshall (R-KS) emphasized the importance of community college and career and technical education (CTE). Sen. Hassan pointed to her legislation, the Gateway to Careers Act, which would help students earn income while they earn educational credits. The legislation would also provide wrap around services.  She asked if Marten agreed that these types of programs are important. Marten said she agreed.

Federal Earmarks

Summary below provided by Ryan Bernstein, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s federal public affairs team

Earmarks are making a return to Congress. House Democrats have announced their intention to bring back earmarks after a moratorium lasting a decade. Removing the moratorium will give more power to individual lawmakers, especially Congressional members on the appropriations committees and the committees drafting the new infrastructure bill. It also provides stakeholders an opportunity to advocate for provisions and shape policy that is not necessarily included in the President’s budget.   

Earmarks are defined as any congressionally directed spending, limited tax benefit, or limited tariff benefit if it benefits a specific entity or state, locality, or congressional district other than through a statutory or administrative formula or competitive award process.

During the 112th Congress (2011-2012), Congress began to observe an “earmark moratorium” or “earmark ban” that prohibited members from requesting a congressional earmark. The ban is not codified in House or Senate rules and is not enforceable by points of order, but instead has been extended by every Congress through each party’s internal rules and committee protocols. 

New Appropriations Earmark Guidelines

In February 2021, House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) announced the House Democratic Appropriations Committee would restore earmarks and rebrand them as “Community Project Funding.” This move will give lawmakers a greater ability to direct money to specific projects rather than allow the agencies, through the President’s Budget, to dictate the flow of appropriated money.  

The new reforms announced by Chair DeLauro include:

  1. Increased Transparency:
    • Members are required to post every request online simultaneously with their submission to the Appropriations Committee. 
    • The Appropriations Committee will release the list of projects funded before the full committee votes on the legislation.
    • Members must certify that they, their spouse, and their immediate family have no financial interest in the projects they request.
  2. Ban on For-Profit Recipients:
    • Members may not direct funding to for-profit grantees. Members may request funding for State or local governmental grantees and for eligible non-profits.
  3. Cap on Overall Funding:
    • “Community Project Funding” may constitute no more than 1 percent of discretionary spending.
  4. Enhanced Auditing:
    • The Government Accountability Office (GAO) will be required to audit a “sample” of community project funding and report its findings to Congress.
  5. Demonstrated community support: 
    • Members must provide evidence of community support that were compelling factors in their decision to select the requested projects.

The new reforms build on the current standards, which include:

  1. No Member Financial Interest:
    • Members are not allowed to pursue Community Project Funding to further his or her financial interest, or that of his or her spouse. Each Member requesting Community Project Funding must certify that there is no such interest.
  2. Request in Writing:
    • Members requesting Community Project Funding must do so in writing including the name and location of the intended recipient, and the purpose of the spending item.
  3. Committee Consideration:
    • When reporting legislation containing Community Project Funding, a Committee must identify each item in the corresponding committee report or joint explanatory statement, and make it publicly available online.
  4. Disclosure Before Floor Consideration:
    • Rules prohibit a vote on a bill or a vote on adoption of a conference report, unless the chair of the committee in question certifies that a complete list of Community Project Funding has been publicly available for at least 48 hours.
  5. Point of Order Against New Projects in Conference Reports:
    • A point of order may be raised against a provision of the conference report if it includes Community Project Funding that was not included in either the House or Senate bills.

Deadlines for Appropriations Requests

Each Member office typically sets a deadline for constituents to submit their appropriations requests. Deadlines vary by member offices, but the deadlines are usually around the end of March. This will give time for each member to submit their appropriations request to the Appropriation Subcommittees. 

This year, however, the submission deadlines will be later this spring because the President’s budget will be delayed. The President will likely release his “skinny” budget mid-April and his full budget is expected in late May or June. Members and committees prefer to have the President’s budget before they start finalizing the budget requests. However, it is important for all stakeholders to submit their budget requests as soon as possible to allow members and committees time to process the increased member requests under the new earmark guidelines.