By Amanda Menas and Barbara Moldauer / Photo by By Martin Falbisoner
Throughout 2020, educators worked tirelessly to ensure that members of Congress heard their voices. The pandemic made it difficult to hold events and rallies in the nation’s capital, so they took action virtually. Their mission: to protect schools from drastic funding cuts and advocate for equitable access to student services.
Members worked around DeVos to keep students safe
Congress refused to adopt budget proposals submitted by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. These proposals, among other things, would have slashed funding for programs serving the students most in need and eliminated public service loan forgiveness on the grounds that “incentivizing one type of job or one type of work over another isn’t called for.”
Legislators also stood with educators as they fought for fair and safe working conditions. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) sent a letter urging DeVos to rescind “equitable service” guidance on COVID-19 funding that “repurpose[s] hundreds-of-millions of taxpayer dollars intended for public school students to provide services for private school students.” Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) sent a letter urging DeVos to target COVID-19 funding to public and nonprofit colleges, and exclude for-profit colleges.
When DeVos refused to participate in a hearing on reopening schools safely, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), Chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said, “I find it hard to understand how Secretary DeVos can expect to lead our nation’s efforts to safely educate our children during this pandemic if she refuses to speak directly to Congress or the American people.”
Rep. Marc Pocan (D-WI) and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) urged their colleagues to support NEA’s top priorities for COVID-19 legislation. Heinrich also introduced the Keeping Schools Safe Act (S. 4782), which would authorize $1 billion in grants to improve indoor air quality in schools using proven technologies to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Sens. Doug Jones (D-AL) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) led a letter urging Senate leadership to include robust funding for America’s schools, educators, and students in the next round of COVID-19 relief funding.
Others wrote letters and introduced bills to encourage transparency in data about COVID-19 cases in schools, make sure that funding is not contingent on in-person instruction, ensure internet access for K-12 students, maintain funding for IDEA and rural schools, and expand access to free school meals for all children during the pandemic and keep school meal programs from collapsing.
These members took steps toward racial and social justice
The Black Lives Matter movement was a catalyst for congressional action in other areas. Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA) introduced the Protecting Our Students in Schools Act (H.R. 8460) to prohibit corporal punishment. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) introduced the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act (S. 4360/H.R. 7848) to replace law enforcement officers in schools with psychologists, social workers, and others with mental health expertise. Reps. Earl Perlmutter (D-CO) and Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) led the successful effort to include in the Department of Education’s appropriations bill language requiring $1 million worth of research into active shooter drills and other school security efforts.
Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), and Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced the 1619 Act (S. 4193) to increase awareness and understanding of African American history through expanded access to programming from the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In contrast, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) sought to discourage schools from including in their curricula the 1619 Project (named for the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in America) because it teaches students to “hate America.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL) sent a letter urging Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to “monitor and address racial disparities in our nation’s response” to the COVID-19 pandemic.
McConnell stood by Trump, opposed state and local aid
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) killed a resolution condemning the use of gas and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights on what would come to be known as Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. He risked his colleagues’ lives by requiring the Senate to convene in person to confirm judges. Worst of all, he repeatedly blocked fiscal relief for states and localities hit hard by COVID-19. “I would certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route,” McConnell said.
Meanwhile, members of the House introduced bills to support teacher residency programs, ensure educators qualify for public service loan forgiveness, create a tax credit to encourage early childhood educators to remain in the profession, and protect access for education support professionals to the Family and Medical Leave Act.
NEA also celebrated these members of Congress:
- Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) for praising aspiring educators in a video celebrating their virtual graduation
- Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) for introducing the Emergency Educational Connections Act (H.R. 6563), which would provide $2 billion for an emergency fund to help close the digital divide and homework gap
- Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) for introducing the Supporting Students in Response to Coronavirus Act (S. 3489/H.R. 6275), which would help schools plan for closures, ensure early childhood programs continue, and provide emergency aid for college students in need of food and housing
- Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Reps. Jackie Speier (D-CA), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Greg Murphy (R-NC), Richard Hudson (R-NC), Gil Cisneros (D-CA), Anthony Brown (D-MD), Deb Haaland (D-NM), Jason Crow (D-CO), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), Joe Courtney (D-CT), John Garamendi (D-CA), Andy Kim (D-NJ), Salud Carbajal (D-CA), and George Holding (R-NC) for signing a bipartisan, bicameral letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressing serious concerns about “turmoil within the Department of Defense Education Authority (DODEA),” which oversees 164 schools serving more than 73,000 students
- Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) for introducing the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act (S. 3170) to give salaried employees in traditional office environments reasonable break times and access to private places
- Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Susan Collins (R-ME), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Martha McSally (R-AZ), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Rob Portman (R-OH), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), and Todd Young (R-IN) for joining their Democratic colleagues in supporting the congressional resolution opposing the changes in the “borrower defense” rule proposed by DeVos
- Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) for objecting to the Trump administration’s privatization agenda and noting that vouchers have a negative, statistically significant impact on educational achievement—i.e., more vouchers equal lower achievement
- Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) for standing up for democracy and pushing for bipartisan action on COVID-19.