WASHINGTON – As Democrats move forward with President Joe Biden $ 3.5 trillion reconstruction plan, they promise historic investments across the education arc – from early childhood to college and beyond – in what advocates have described as the most comprehensive package of its kind in decades.
The education provisions of Biden’s “Build Better” proposal would serve as the foundation for educational opportunities for countless Americans and test the country’s willingness to expand federal programs in depth.
Equity is a priority as it seeks to remove barriers to education that, for decades, have resulted in wage and learning disparities based on race and income. And by expanding early childhood education and child care programs, it aims to bring back workers, especially women, who quit their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic to care for children whose schools have been closed.
In total, Americans would be entitled to two years of free preschool plus two years of free community college. Millions of families would be eligible for expanded child care subsidies. And there would be more federal financial aid for low-income students.
“We haven’t done anything like that in my memory,” said Jessica Thompson, associate vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit education organization. “This is the dream.”
Congress is working to meet Monday’s self-imposed deadlines, and Biden’s broader proposal could come to the House later in the week. But Democrats must first overcome divisions in their own ranks on the scope of the plan. The $ 3.5 trillion proposal touches almost every aspect of American life, from health care and taxes to climate and housing, largely funded by raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
The price will likely drop and ambitions will be reduced to appease more centrist lawmakers who are wary of big spending. But the cuts are causing concern among progressives and others who say they have already compromised enough.
Funding for historically black colleges and universities, for example, has been slashed from Biden’s earlier plans. As lawmakers consider other measures to cut costs, the money to repair aging school buildings could be on the losing end.
In a recent House committee hearing, Representative Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., Argued that any further cuts could jeopardize the success of her education programs.
âEven with the robust investments offered here, we are still neglecting vital programs,â she said.
Democrats are moving forward alone because Republicans denounce the proposal as a step towards socialism that will worsen inflation and strain the economy. They argue that the free community college will benefit the richer students who access the resource, at the expense of those with lower incomes. And even on child care, which typically lends bipartisan support, Republicans say the plan goes too far.
“We should be focusing on ensuring that hard-working taxpayers can find the best care for their children rather than blindly throwing money at the problem and calling it a solution,” said Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the leading Republican in the Education and Labor House. Committee.
Together, the $ 761 billion in education investments represent one-fifth of Biden’s total. They are intended to provide a better start to school for children, especially those from low-income families. Higher education plans aim to bring more adults to college and help them earn degrees that will lead to better paying jobs.
Even if the package is approved despite strong opposition from the GOP, some of the renowned education proposals would face a big hurdle: gaining state buy-in.
For example, community college and preschool plans would only apply in states that opt ââin and cover part of the costs. Proponents fear that some states will reject the programs for political reasons or to avoid the cost.
The Democrats’ proposal for a universal preschool – one of Biden’s campaign promises – would forge new partnerships with states to provide free preschool to all 3 and 4 year olds. The federal government would cover full costs for the first three years before reducing until the states pay 40%. After seven years, it would either end or have to be renewed.
A separate provision would extend child care benefits to more families, and the cost to families would be capped at no more than 7% of their income. Unlike other aspects of the agenda, it would not require state involvement – cities or counties could opt even if their states do not.
With a free community college, Biden hopes to deliver a benefit he has been advocating since the Obama administration. Under the proposal, anyone in a participating state would be eligible to attend two years of community college without paying a tuition fee.
States that opt ââwould get federal funding through a formula; they would eventually be asked to cover about 20% of the cost. The bill would provide enough funds to sustain the program for five years.
Other provisions include a $ 500 increase in the maximum Pell Grant for low-income students, new investments in teacher training programs and $ 82 billion for school infrastructure. In a move heralded by college accessibility advocates, it would also make federal college assistance available to students of the Deferred Action Program for Childhood Arrivals.
The plan has been praised by education advocacy groups, although many hoped for a larger increase from the Pell grant program.
Denise Forte, interim CEO of the Education Trust, said the bill has the potential to open new doors for communities that have long been left behind. But she said the plan’s success will largely hinge on its acceptance by states.
âSome states may consider the barrier to be too high, even though there is a significant return,â she said. “And some of the states that may not be willing to have the highest proportion of students of color who don’t have access to all of these issues.”
There are also criticisms that the bill fails to deliver on some of Biden’s promises, particularly to black Americans and other key voting groups who helped him get to the White House.
In previous proposals, Biden asked for at least $ 45 billion to support research at historically black colleges and universities. However, the bill only includes $ 2 billion for this purpose, causing the HBCU leaders to step back, who on Wednesday issued a letter asking for “several billion more dollars.”
Tensions have mounted over the issue in recent weeks, with some Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus threatening to decline support for the bill unless additional funds are added.
Binkley reported from Boston.
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