A Back-to-School Roundup After a Busy Summer in Washington
By Manish Naik, Director of Legislative Services
After a busy summer in Washington, including a congressional session that stretched almost two weeks into August, it should be safe to say we’ve seen all we’re going to see from Congress until the after the mid-term elections. The House and Senate are back from their August recess, but with less than two months until election day, Congress will stay in Washington for about three weeks before heading out on the campaign trail in October. The only meaningful legislative action we will see during September is the passing of continuing resolutions (CRs) for the annual appropriations bills. The CRs will give Congress an extension on the deadline to approve funding bills until after the mid-term elections.
After the gun violence tragedies in Uvalde, Buffalo, Tulsa, and other areas across the nation, the partisan stalemate on firearms softened enough for Congress to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in June. The measure included gun safety and violence prevention measures incentivizing “red flag” laws in states, protections that ban weapons sales to domestic abusers, enhanced background checks for people under 21 years old, and stricter penalties and requirements for firearms dealers, straw purchasing, and trafficking. The bill also included competitive funding for school districts to increase mental health services for students as well as $1 billion for Title IV-A funding to be distributed at the discretion of the States.
Additional support for schools, communities, and families will be available through expansion of Medicaid and CHIP programs dealing with mental and behavioral health, as well as funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to increase mental health awareness, suicide prevention, and training for medical providers and first responders. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act also included funding for the STOP School Violence Act out of the Department of Justice. This program was passed by Congress after the Parkland, Florida shooting in 2018, and helps district leaders and school personnel develop and implement threat assessment and intervention teams with law enforcement officials, as well as other training and technology solutions.
On a bipartisan basis, Congress also approved legislation to increase domestic semiconductor manufacturing, a health care and benefits bill for Veterans exposed to toxic substances, and expanding the NATO alliance by adding Sweden and Finland. On their own, the Democratic majority passed the Inflation Reduction Act through the budget reconciliation process, which requires a simple majority for approval instead of the usual 60-vote threshold in the Senate. Over half of the funding in the Inflation Reduction Act addresses climate change, but the legislation also includes some health care, tax and deficit reduction policies which were in 2021’s failed Build Back Better bill. None of Build Back Better’s education related provisions were in the legislation, meaning there was no support for school facilities, universal pre-K, or free community college.
The other branches of the federal government also undertook notable action this summer and will continue to do so this fall while the House and Senate members campaign. In addition to the Dobbs decision affecting abortion rights, the Supreme Court decided cases related to private school tuition, school prayer, and gun safety this summer. The Council of the Great City Schools filed an amicus brief on cases the Supreme Court will hear in late October regarding the use of race in higher education admissions. The Council’s brief argued that due to racial isolation and educational inequality in elementary and secondary education, race-neutral admissions procedures are often inadequate to produce diverse college and university enrollments. The Council also pointed out that to achieve diversity in K-12 schools, there continues to be a need for narrowly tailored race-conscious student assignment measures at the elementary and secondary level.
The biggest education news from the Administration this summer was the President’s announcement regarding student loan forgiveness, but on the K-12 side the U.S. Department of Education released their proposed changes to Title IX, affecting how school districts and higher education investigate and respond to complaints of sex-based harassment and discrimination. The Department also continued to support school districts as they prepared for the new school year and struggled with staffing shortages, spending funds under the American Rescue Plan, and accelerating learning recovery. This work will also continue into the fall as state assessment results are released showing the impact that school closures and COVID-19 had on student achievement since the pandemic began.
The outcome of the mid-term elections will determine whether control of Congress will change in the second half of President Biden’s four-year term. Regardless of the outcome, school districts have high hopes that this upcoming school year will be free from the learning disruptions that affected the last two school years, providing them with the time and focus needed to effectively address student unfinished learning.