BY XIMENA BUSTILLO AND BIANCA QUILANTAN
*This article was originally made available to POLITICO Pro subscribers on 2/18/2021
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The measure is a part of a three-bill package introduced by House Democrats with the goal of investing half a trillion dollars in K-12 schools for infrastructure upgrades and to mitigate job losses and student learning loss caused by the pandemic. The move is Democrats' latest effort to help schools reopen amid the pandemic and related state budget shortfalls.
WHAT’S IN THE BILL?*
H.R. 604 would create a $100 billion grant program and a $30 billion tax credit bond program targeted at improving the physical and digital infrastructure at high-poverty schools.
Grants for the long-term improvement of public school facilities (Title I): This title would authorize $20 billion per year from fiscal 2022 through fiscal 2026 to support long-term improvements to public school facilities, with funds to remain available through fiscal 2031. It would specifically reserve 0.5 percent of funds for outlying areas and 0.5 percent of funds for schools under the Bureau of Indian Education each year.
States would be allocated funds in proportion to the amount their local education agencies, or LEAs, receive under Title I, Part A of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The legislation would require states to issue regulations to ensure safe, healthy and high-performing buildings as well as develop an online, publicly searchable database that outlines the condition of all public school facilities in the state.
Other state requirements would include a 10 percent funding-match provision, a maintenance-of-effort provision and a supplement-not-supplant provision. This section would also require states to submit a plan to the Education secretary for approval to carry out the competitive grant program.
States would be required to allocate funds competitively to LEAs based on the poverty level of the school, fiscal limitations to raise funds to improve school facilities, and the severity of the need to improve school facilities. States would also need to ensure the distribution of grants represents their geographic diversity. States may distribute up to 10 percent of the total allocation of grants to enable LEAs to leverage existing public programs or public-private partnerships to expand access to high-speed broadband sufficient for digital learning.
When awarding grants for fiscal 2022, the bill would direct states to give special priority to LEAs that will use the funds for schools "to support indoor and outdoor social distancing, personal hygiene, and building hygiene (including with respect to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning usage) in school facilities, consistent with guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
*Here, our team breaks down what is in major sections of H.R. 113 (116). Some segments have been removed.
WHO ARE THE POWER PLAYERS?
Scott, chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced the bill.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), ranking member of the Education and Labor Committee, argued that the previous version of the bill, H.R. 865 (116), "(would) deliver increased costs and bureaucracy to the many in exchange for little grants to a few school districts."
WHAT’S HAPPENED SO FAR?
The committee-approved 116th Congress version was attached in 2020 to House Democrats' infrastructure package, H.R. 2 (116), before the House passed it 233-188 on July 1. But then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the package "a multi-thousand-page cousin of the Green New Deal masquerading as a highway bill" and said he would not bring it to the floor before the end of the year.
Claiming a renewed sense of urgency because of the pandemic, lawmakers unveiled H.R. 604 on Jan. 28 with two other bills that when taken all together would invest close to half a trillion dollars in K-12 schools for infrastructure upgrades and to mitigate job losses and student learning loss caused by the pandemic.
“Prior to the pandemic, our education system was suffering from crumbling infrastructure, understaffed schools and widening achievement gaps,” Scott said. “Now, after an unprecedented disruption in students’ lives as a result of the pandemic, we are seeing existing inequities exacerbated.”
Additionally, states could experience a combined $555 billion budget shortfall between fiscal years 2020 to 2022, according to a July report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Up to 1.9 million education jobs could be lost over the same time frame, the committee said, citing two teachers unions' reports.
A GAO report on the state of school infrastructure from last summer also found that 41 percent of school districts must replace or update HVAC systems in more than half of their buildings, which could total up to about 36,000 school buildings nationwide.
With Democrats holding slim majorities in each chamber this Congress, plus the White House, proponents are hopeful H.R. 604 can advance farther than last year, either as a stand-alone bill or again as part of a package.
But the fact that neither of the past two Senate versions had GOP co-sponsors doesn't bode well for reaching the 60-vote threshold required to overcome a Senate filibuster, meaning inclusion in a budget reconciliation measure may be the language's only path to enactment this Congress.
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