The education community's optimism about a big pandemic relief package from Uncle Sam has curdled into dismay and frustration. And with a presidential election and furor over a Supreme Court nomination at the top of Washington's agenda, it's possible that it will go bad beyond all recognition.
Ever since President Donald Trump signed a coronavirus relief bill in late March in the pandemic's earliest phase, educators warned that looming state and local K-12 budget cuts amounting to billions of dollars, along with safety concerns from school communities caused by the coronavirus, required another response and more resources that only the federal government could provide.
Leaders from both parties in Congress publicly and vigorously agreed. They pronounced repeatedly that something had to be done to help education beyond the roughly $13 billion for K-12 schools included in the CARES Act and an additional $3 billion it provided for governors to use for K-12 and higher education.
Democrats controlling the House of Representatives have sought $58 billion in direct aid for K-12 schools, and more than $900 billion in aid to state and local governments in part to help them shore up their own education budgets.
Republicans running the Senate have countered with $70 billion in aid for K-12, but have conditioned most of it on whether schools offered an in-person learning option. Their bill also provides support to parents for educational materials and private school tuition, but no aid to state and local governments.
The late spring and summer were consumed with these and other proposals, frenzied demands, and intense speculation about a final deal. But as weary teachers, school leaders, and others looked on, this much-discussed aid that federal officials dangled before their eyes failed to materialize.
Votes to move partisan bills have failed to break the logjam. Trump's upcoming nomination of a Supreme Court justice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg has sucked oxygen away from other Washington issues. And a close presidential election between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden could push a new relief package further down the priority list.
"I am incredulous that Congress has not done more. It never occurred to me that they would leave for the summer without enacting additional relief," said Sarah Abernathy, a former Democratic congressional staffer and the deputy executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella advocacy group that lobbies for federal education spending.
With Washington ignoring issues like the estimated 16.9 million children who lack the internet they need to learn effectively at home, "It is mind-boggling to me that folks aren't just standing up and screaming out the windows: 'We can't take this anymore,'" said Deborah Delisle, the president and CEO of the K-12 advocacy group Alliance for Excellent Education.
While school funding is not the biggest issue to be worked out in any national pandemic relief deal, it has been (or was) a key part of negotiations. As a result, it's become a stumbling block.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, attacked Senate Republican proposals in their aid bill that focused on providing tax-credit scholarships and help for private schools, but not things like aid to state and local governments and meals for students. Stating that senators have shown "a disturbing willingness to do nothing," Scott also said, "the Senate has shown no ability to pass a bill. So what are we negotiating?"
His counterpart, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, criticized Senate Democrats for bottling up his party's virus relief bill. He said in a statement the Senate proposal would help schools reopen "and gives parents more choices of schools for their children."
The president's summer pressure campaign for schools to reopen buildings threw a spotlight on the issue, but also cranked up partisan attention and angst about balancing safety, the economy, and children's educational needs.
Meanwhile, the federal government is ignoring the disadvantaged students who are supposed to be the primary recipients of federal resources and support at all times, and who are some of the pandemic's biggest victims amid school closures and job losses, said Jess Gartner, the CEO and founder of Allovue, an education management firm that helps districts create and plan budgets.
And those same children, she said, are more likely to live in school districts that rely most heavily on the state education aid that is most likely to be cut dramatically during the pandemic's fiscal fallout without a big dose of relief from Washington.
"To me, it sends a very clear message that Congress does not care about the solvency of public education in this country," Gartner said. "This could very well be the death knell for the solvency of many districts if they do not receive their aid."
There was a possibility that a final deal would provide a political "win" as well as finite resources for people across the spectrum of education politics. But so far that opportunity has not led to a breakthrough. A Sept. 15 proposal from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in Congress that was pitched explicitly as "common ground" includes $145 billion for school and child care and $500 billion for state and local governments. It's been ignored.
Gartner has said that Congress needs to go all-in on a relief package that is not just big on dollars, but broad. To her, that means $200 billion in direct aid for schools, $5 billion to expand the federal E-Rate program to connect students to high-speed internet, and $132.5 billion for retroactive and future child care costs, among other programs, for a total relief package of $383 billion.
Such relief, she noted, would help take burdens off schools they should not have to be carrying in the way they are now: "Why on earth are school districts out there providing internet service in big cities? We have schools that are operating as food banks, and providing meals for entire communities every day."
In August, the advocacy group 50CAN issued a report calling on Washington and the nation in general "Fund Everything" in education, from schools providing remote learning to ad hoc learning "pods" organized by parents. "To maximize the adaptability of our system of schools in an unpredictable year, our emergency investments should focus on maximizing these choices across all school types-district, charter, parochial and private," the report stated.
Derrell Bradford, 50CAN's executive vice president, said that when it comes to an inability for Washington policymakers to reach a deal, "The fact that nobody wants to be a cheap date or give away the store, so no one looks bad in a partisan context, sends a terrible message to every American about where we are politically."
While parents are being burdened with "problems to solve that they never had to solve before, across all income levels," Washington has proceeded as if the nation's long-term economic health and viability for decades to come isn't at stake, he said.
"The fact that millions of American kids are going to suffer deep and possibly irreparable learning loss because Congress can't decide on a number is a low point, not just in education policymaking, but policymaking," Bradford said.
It's been just over a decade since a House, Senate, and executive branch controlled by Democrats approved $100 billion for education in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With the parties now splitting control of Congress, a big-ticket coronavirus relief bill has always been destined to be a tougher political knot to untangle than that 2009 still stimulus.
But in addition, Abernathy said, "Congress has gotten a lot less cooperative in the last 10 years. So it's a lot harder to produce anything."
Even if a deal gets done in the coming weeks or months, Congress has lost the power to claim that any agreement is helping schools at the start of the school year.
Yet Delisle, who also served as an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and as Ohio's state schools chief, said that given the depth and breadth of education needs, schools that are using virtual or hybrid learning models will only need more help when they resume normal operations, not less.
"Money is still necessary to support schools, and most importantly, to support the students in them," Delisle said.