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We regularly check in with Thomas Phillips, Congressional Affairs Specialist for Battelle, about legislation that’s going to impact STEM networks and STEM educators across the country. This week, Congress has been busy debating new bills with trillions of dollars in federal aid. Thomas breaks down both bills, with a view on the prospects for compromise and passage into law.

Generally, what legislation are we discussing today?

Because this is an unusual year, the appropriations process has been anything but regular; the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with a presidential election has significantly delayed the typical timeline for annual congressional spending legislation. To that end, today we won’t be getting an appropriations update – while we have some unfinalized numbers from the House, we don’t have anything from the Senate, and I don’t want to paint you half of a picture. That said, over the past few months, Congress has focused extensively on the nation’s response to the coronavirus. So, today we will be discussing both chambers’ second major COVID-19 stimulus packages: the HEROES Act, produced by House Democrats and passed out of the House in mid-May, and the HEALS Act, produced more recently by Senate Republicans (the legislative package was released on Monday, 7/27).

These bills are aimed at minimizing economic harms caused by the virus. For educators specifically, what provisions in these bills would affect students and teachers?

thomas phillips

Thomas Phillips, congressional affairs specialist at Battelle, updates us on policy on STEM education

Both the HEROES Act and the HEALS Act are follow-ups to the CARES Act, passed and signed into law back in March. While CARES was a $2.2 trillion package overall, the House’s HEROES Act upped the ante, coming in at $3 trillion, whereas the Senate’s HEALS Act provides $1 trillion. Despite their differences, both packages are massive. And, before getting into the education provisions, I would note that both new packages propose a stimulus check with the same pay-out structure as the one from CARES. I would also note that the Paycheck Protection Program and enhanced unemployment benefits are retained in both packages, although with varying details regarding distributions.

There are a number of provisions in both bills that specifically address the upcoming school-year, and the needs of both educators and students. A question looming over many states and districts is whether or not to return to in-person instruction this fall. Both of these bills address that question with targeted and flexible funding provided in a way which allows states to make their own decisions, based on needs. There are a number of significant differences between the bills when it comes to education, and I’ll outline those below.

Title VI of the House’s HEROES Act directs $100.15 billion to the Department of Education to address the needs of states, school districts, and institutions of higher education. $90 billion of that is directed into a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, similar to the fund created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). This fund supports grants to states for a number of allowable uses, including, but not limited to:

  • costs associated with making up instructional time;
  • providing school-based supports for impacted students, families, and staff;
  • costs associated with sanitation and cleaning for schools and school transportation;
  • professional development for school-based staff on trauma-informed care to restore the learning environment;
  • purchasing educational technology, including assistive technology, that aids in regular and substantive interactions between students and their classroom instructor;
  • coordination efforts between State educational agencies and public health departments for emergency planning, response, and recovery; and,
  • authorized activities under existing education statutes including ESEA, IDEA, McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, and the Perkins Act.

Additionally, outside of the HEROES Act’s specific education provisions, Title III addresses the issue of broadband connectivity, directing $1.5 billion to close the homework gap by providing funding for Wi-Fi hotspots and connected devices for students and library patrons, and $4 billion for emergency home connectivity needs.

The Senate’s HEALS Act directs $105.1 billion to the Department of Education, and allocates almost all of it to the Education Stabilization Fund (ESF) established by the CARES Act. The ESF is divided four ways, as it was in CARES:

  • $70 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSERF);
  • $5 billion for the Governors Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERF);
  • $29 billion for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund; and,
  • $1 billion for the Bureau of Indian Education and outlying areas

The majority of the funding with the most impact for our STEMx membership is located within the two “buckets” I’ve put in bold above, the ESSERF and the GEERF. These funds are able to be distributed in the same way as the funds from the CARES act, with one major exception. Within the ESSERF, of the funding allocated directly to school districts and private schools, one-third would be available to all school districts and private schools immediately. The remaining two-thirds would be available specifically to help schools with the additional costs to reopen for in-person instruction, with funding awarded based on certain minimum opening requirements and other criteria established by the state.

Notably, the Senate’s HEALS Act also requires states to maintain their funding for education at least at the same proportional levels as in 2019 as a condition for receiving any of the above ESF grants.

What’s the path for these two different bills to become a law?

Because the HEROES Act was already passed out of the House, the process is about halfway complete. As mentioned above, the Senate’s HEALS Act was formally introduced earlier this week. The Senate needs to finalize their bill, and pass it out of their chamber in order to begin the conference process.

During conference, selected House and Senate leaders will negotiate through each of the various differences between the bills. Regarding general stimulus provisions, there appears to be enough consensus between the House, Senate, and the President for those negotiations to move forward, although the extension of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) remains a strong point of contention.

Regarding the significant differences in the education provisions, I believe that the structure of the Senate’s HEALS Act will prevail, as Majority Leader McConnell has been adamant about maintaining the construct of the CARES Act. However, to negotiate that structure, there may be policy provisions on which he must compromise. As negotiations continue, expect to hear leadership in both the House and Senate weighing in, as well as input from the President. There is just over one week until Congress was supposed to break for August recess, and all of Capitol Hill is in a frenzy to finish this work.

Going beyond what we know, what’s your impression of the prospects for these bills to move forward with some level of compromise? When might the conference bill be signed?

Although it has taken some time to get to this point, there seems to momentum in the Senate, and an impetus to cross the finish line. With the expiration of the PPP and expanded unemployment benefits set for tomorrow, July 31st, there is even more pressure to act. Leadership in both chambers claim to be far-apart on a resolution, and may have to resort to a short-term, stop-gap measure while they resolve their differences.

My prediction is that some version of the Senate’s HEALS Act will pass before next Friday, August 7th, at which point both chambers will want to quickly reconcile their differences and send the final bill to the President’s desk for his signature. Whether or not the increasingly partisan process will support such expedience remains to be seen. All of that said, if they do not resort to a stop-gap measure, I would expect a final conference bill to be on the President’s desk by the third week of August. Timed correctly, many of the benefits of the new stimulus package would be dispersed by the end of the month.

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