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Education under President Joe Biden's administration will look vastly different from how it was under former President Donald Trump for many reasons. There are three key pieces of policy that have or will come out in 2021 that are sure to affect education – the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, budget planning for 2022 and the new infrastructure bill.

On this episode of Insider Insights: 100 Days of Biden, Jim Wiltraut and Chuck Kolling, senior principals in Buchanan’s Federal Government Relations practice, discuss the future of education under President Biden. Beyond new policy, there’s much to discuss in the world of student debt relief and Kolling shares his thoughts on what those in the higher education space need to know.

In this episode, Chuck and Jim cover:

  • The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and what impact it will have on educational institutions.
  • The return of earmarks in the federal budget process for 2022 and what those in education should be saying to their representatives.
  • President Biden’s infrastructure bill and what might be available for colleges and universities.
  • Federal student loan debt forgiveness and whether or not the President will actually move to forgive all or some of it.
  • How the President and his Department of Education may address the future of schools in the COVID and post-COVID world.
  • The biggest differences in approach between Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and current secretary Miguel Cardona.

You can listen to Insider Insights: 100 Days of Biden in many places: on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, and more.

Podcast Transcript

Jim Wiltraut: Welcome to Insider Insights: 100 Days of Biden, a podcast from Buchannan Ingersoll and Rooney. I’m your host, Jim Wiltraut a senior principal in our firm’s Federal Government Relations practice in Washington D.C.

If this is your first time tuning into our podcast, be sure to check out our previous episodes where we’ve covered President Biden’s expected policy approaches to the life sciences, energy, healthcare, transportation, labor and employment, and defense sectors. If you’re a returning listener, then welcome back.

On today’s episode, I’m joined by my colleague Chuck Kolling. Like me, Chuck is a senior principal in Buchannan’s Government Relations practice. We’re going to spend some time talking about what changes and legislative policies those in the education space can expect to see from the new administration. Chuck, welcome to the podcast.

Chuck Kolling: Thanks very much Jim. Looking forward to our conversation.

Jim Wiltraut: Starting off, there are three pieces of legislation that came out recently to be approved by Congress that affect stakeholders in the education space. I want to go through all three of those with you over the course of the podcast. First, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed in mid-March and included a number of provisions for businesses and organizations, including for higher education. Can you tell us a little bit about what those are and what education institutions need to do to get this support?

Chuck Kolling: As you mentioned, the American Rescue Plan was approved recently by the Congress. It represents the single-largest investment ever in higher education – about $39.5 billion dollars nationally. The $39 billion will be allocated by the Secretary of Education, primarily based on several formula calculations derived from the Pell grant allotments to higher education institutions. Approximately 91% will go directly to institutions.

It’s similar to the CARES Act money, the first stimulus package that was passed last year. In that, 50% of the aid must be distributed to students as an emergency financial aid. It’s very specific in that public, private and non-profit institutions receiving American Rescue Plan funds must spend at least as much on emergency financial aid to students as they spent last year with the CARES Act fund. This is money students can use to pay for food, for housing, for childcare, transportation, course materials, technology things like that. So, it’s pretty significant.

The remaining funds can be used for, among other things, technology at the institutions, new safety improvements, faculty, staff trainings, payroll, etc. So, it’s a pretty extensive opportunity, and that $39 billion is going to be available pretty soon through the Department of Education. Although the money hasn’t been allocated yet, we have some estimates about what institutions are going to be receiving.

Additionally, 7.5% of that funding is going to be available to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). I think that’s significant. I think 1% is planned to be provided to proprietary institutions of higher education. And then there’s a half a percent that the Secretary has some discretion on distributing to the institutions with greatest unmet needs.

So, it’s a great opportunity for higher education to access significant federal dollars. Again, we’re talking about a $1.9 trillion pot of money. And of that money, $39.5 billion will be going to the institutions of higher education.

Jim Wiltraut: You’re right when you characterize that it’s an incredible investment. It really is. But I guess there’s more to come.

We talked in previous episodes about the fact that Congress is bringing back the traditional earmark, something that they haven’t had since 2010. So, it’s been a long time, and members of Congress are getting used to this new environment. But with the federal budget process under way, and the introduction of earmarks, what does this mean for the education sector? I know some deadlines for applying or making appropriations requests to members of Congress have passed, while others have not. How would you advise institutions of higher learning if they were going after earmarks in this particular year?

Chuck Kolling: After a hiatus of over a decade, earmarks are back. Although they're called something different now, “community projects.” Right now, starting with the United States House of Representatives, members can now submit requests for funding of projects within their districts, within certain limitations of course, including the number of projects for which funding is being requested and the cap and the total amount for each member.

It’s very important that institutions of higher education reach out to the members of the House to begin with. The Senate will be considering this type of legislation for 2022, after the House passes their legislation, but start with the House. The deadline for submission for members to the actual appropriations committee is April 28th. But as you indicated, some of the individual members of Congress have established guidelines and deadlines sooner than that, and they want to be able to review the documents and speak with the applicants and the higher education institutions in order to prioritize the projects.

So, I think it’s really critical that education institutions reach out to members of Congress. The money for higher education community projects will be designated under the post-secondary education fund for the improvement of post-secondary education. The funding request should focus on improving access to or the quality of post-secondary education. This community project funding cannot be used for the construction of or renovation of academic buildings, except for the case of minor remodeling as part of technology upgrades. In addition, the recipients of higher education institutions who receive higher education funding may not subgrant to other organizations or agencies. Some examples of the types of projects that can be funded include projects to hire and train faculty and staff, establish an improved degree program, improve teacher preparation programs, develop and improve curriculum, acquire science laboratory equipment, and provide student support.

The grantees are usually going to be colleges and universities, but that may also include other public and private non-profit organizations. It should be also noted, there’s going to be significant funding through the budget process, but also under the American Rescue Plan. There, $350 billion dollars is going to be available for state and municipal governments to assist them in addressing challenges related to the pandemic. So higher education institutions should be going after earmarks for the 2022 budget, but also should be reaching out to their local governors, state legislators, municipal officials, and talking to them about some funding available through that funding.

Jim Wiltraut: Great point. With higher education, it is a patchwork if you will, of funding opportunities. And this year in particular, there are more than two or three bites of the apple with the COVID-19 relief bill. It’s a good time to be in the business of educating folks. There’s a lot of money out there. There’s going to be a lot of oversight, but there’s a lot of money out there to do good things.

Lastly, on the immediate legislation front, there has been plenty of talk about President Biden’s infrastructure bill and how it looks like it may encompass much more than traditional infrastructure. What might be available to colleges and universities there, and again how can they access those funds?

Chuck Kolling: Particulars of the proposed legislation are still being worked out, but the package will be broken up into distinct pieces. One bill would focus on infrastructure and green energy. Another bill will focus on improvements for Americans, including universal Pre-K, paid sick leave and family leave, and interestingly, free community college. The higher education institution portion of the package is of particular interest and is called infrastructure at home. It includes $100 billon for high-speed broadband expansion, but also $137 billion for public schools and early learning centers and community colleges as I mentioned previously.

So, there’s a lot there, and it’s only at the beginning of the process. I think it’s important that staff and the leaders of the institutions start reaching out to their members of Congress on the infrastructure package and talk about their needs.

There are no real specifics yet about the free community college proposal. It’s unclear whether it will be universal or will be means-tested based on income. It does not appear to go quite as far as some of the proposals put forth by more progressive democrats. Especially those like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont who have advocated for debt-free college for all public undergraduate institutions.

It’s just the latest in the series of early steps the Biden administration has been pursing with respect to student loans and borrowers. They cancelled 72,000 students' loans. They’re expected to cost about a billion dollars. They also extended the payment pay-back period for student loans to September of 2021. So, there are a number of different areas that the administration is pursuing with respect to student loans.

One final thing I do want to mention with respect to community colleges. The infrastructure plan, the American Rescue Plan includes investing in community college infrastructure and technology to help protect the health and safety of students and faculty. The president is calling on Congress to invest $12 billion on these infrastructure needs. These infrastructure needs will be directed specifically for existing physical and technological needs for community colleges and identifying strategies to address access to community college and so-called education deserts – those areas across the country where there are not community colleges or the residents do not have access to higher education. So, it is fairly significant, but it is really an innovative program. We are anxious to see when and how Congress is going to take up that proposal.

Jim Wiltraut: Yeah, Chuck you are right. It is a lot of data, but it shows – that of all the things the Biden administration has on its plate with education – both K-12 and higher education are obviously a focus with the COVID relief bills, the infrastructure package, and with what the Biden administration has submitted so far, in what some people are calling his skinny budget.

He is talking about investing billions and billions. You would almost think that he has a family member in the education business.

Chuck Kolling: Wouldn’t that be shocking? 

Jim Wiltraut: Yeah, I have to wonder which Biden in The White House wrote this part of the agenda. Lots of money for community colleges. Lots of money as you put it, for access. Getting people in the states in college, whether it is through distanced learning or through in-person learning. It’s a lot of investment. As we know from representing so many colleges and universities across the country, colleges, certainly through the COVID pandemic, had to put a lot of money out front. There were requirements. These colleges and universities stepped up and brought up their students into a virtual learning environment overnight, and that cost a lot of money. They all stepped up. And it shows that the Biden administration sees the need to invest more money. Like I said before, this is a great time to be in that environment because the Administration is focused, and they really seem to be focused like a laser on this.

To go back to COVID, it almost would not be a conversation about schools and about education without talking about COVID and its impact on education. Some have moved over the potential of liability protection for education institutions. How do you see the president and his Department of Education addressing the future of schools in the COVID and post-COVID environment?

Chuck Kolling: It is going to be a challenge. I know liability protection is a topic that has come up at the state level and at the federal level. Right now, current federal law provides liability protection to businesses that have been limited to COVID-19-related injuries resulting from healthcare or manufacturers of personal protective equipment. Much of the delay comes with respect to proving liability and limited liability protection. It is because of the ongoing debate going on in Congress to be honest with you.

On one hand, Republicans have been arguing for blanket liability protections, for businesses, and higher education institutions that reopen. For example, former Majority Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell indicated that the Republicans would not support a new Coronavirus relief bill unless it included liability protections or amenities related to lawsuits related to the COVID-19 explosion of cases. McConnell shared his intentions, I believe, back in June 2020 when he said that they were looking for a five-year liability protection bill for business, healthcare providers, universities and schools that would be retroactive to 2019.

However, the Democrats have opposed that. Some democratic senators, I think Senator Chris Coons from Delaware and former Senator Doug Jones of Alabama expressed support for that type of federal regulation. But the House Democrats said they would not do it, and they would not agree to a proposal limiting workers’ rights to sue. So that has been hung up in that case.

What has happened is this lack of federal action has led to educational institutions going to state governments to try to get state legislatures to approve limited liability legislation. It happened in a number of states. In some democratic states with democratic government and the democratic governors, they have vetoed that legislation. So, the opposition has come from a variety of groups, but primarily groups like the trial lawyers, who are very powerful from a political standpoint. What has occurred is that you go from state to state, and you have different requirements through limited liability. Some limited liability in some places; some not at all. At this point, I do not see, with other issues like the things we discussed previously, the Biden administration has not indicated whether this is a top priority. Again, President Biden is close to some of those organizations that have been talked about. So, I think it is unlikely to see any congressional action on limited liability even in the near future.

Jim Wiltraut: Well, thanks for that. I know it is a big concern for a lot of our clients who have been hoping that Congress would take action.

Finally, Chuck, under the previous administration, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made a lot of waves when talking about her fondness for charter schools. I imagine this current administration feels a bit differently. Can you talk generally about the biggest differences in approach between DeVos and current Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona?

Chuck Kolling: During the campaign, President Biden really criticized charter schools. He talked about banning certain types of charters. However, it should also be noted that much of the charter activity has already been taking place at the state level again, state capitals, and local school districts. Some states have begun erecting barriers to establish the charter schools or enacting laws that hinder their acquisition, for example. Some states have used the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to defund charter schools. And finally, some teachers’ unions, some of which are very close to President Biden by the way, have used strikes to push states and local school boards toward anti-charter positions.

Education Secretary Cardona was the Connecticut Commissioner of Education. His role, when he was in Connecticut, included being a charter school authorizer. In many states, I think 20 states, the state education agencies actually authorize charters. He closed no charters during his 10 years, and reupped the charters of all those who came up for renewal. He said specifically that charter schools provide choice for parents that are seeking a choice to make. So, he thinks they are a viable option.

Jim Wiltraut: Chuck, I cannot thank you enough. We have covered a lot on today's podcast. Thank you for joining me and sharing a bit of your expertise and insights into what is going on in D.C., around the country, and the nation. To hear all episodes of this podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcast, or wherever you listen in. For Insider Insights 100 Days of Biden, I’m Jim Wiltraut with my colleague, Chuck Kolling from Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. Thanks for listening.