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Restart In-Person Classes or Lose Federal Aid, Two Lawmakers Say in Messaging Bill

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Two members of Congress have a proposition for schools: Figure out how to resume in-person classes next fall, or lose your federal funding.

That's the idea behind the Reopen Our Schools Act from Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., and Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wis. The legislation, which the two lawmakers announced on Thursday, would prohibit K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities from receiving fiscal 2020 aid unless they reopen by Sept. 8, according to information on Banks' congressional website, which also says that "only in-person classes count as re-opening." 

The Reopen Our Schools Act isn't likely to pass (at the moment, Tiffany is the only listed cosponsor). But it does channel big concerns about the difficulty of resuming normal activity if schools don't offer regular classes in the fall. And it highlights major divisions about balancing health and safety and an economic rebound.

Banks' office says that under the bill, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would have the power to create a waiver process from the law, and schools would have "maximum liability protection" although that isn't precisely defined in the statement. Schools would also have to create plans to reopen safely "per their normal operations pre-coronavirus."

"We need to change the subject from, 'Our schools might not reopen in the fall' to 'Our schools will reopen in the fall and here's what we need to do it,'" said Banks in a statement announcing the legislation. 

The two lawmakers also highlight concerns about the effectiveness of remote learning and the "digital divide."

'I Would Like to See Schools Open'

So what about the politics behind the bill?

President Donald Trump has repeatedly urged schools to resume normal operations quickly. At an Oval Office event last month, for example, Trump said, "I would like to see schools open, wherever possible."

That sentiment has been shared by many others who see a resumption of regular K-12 classes as a key element of reviving the economy. Indeed, Banks also said when he unveiled the bill that "reopening our schools is the lynchpin to reopening our economy. Many parents rely on their kids going to school so they can go to work."

The legislation from Banks and Tiffany crystallizes the arguments of those who don't want the economy hampered in the name of too much caution over how schools should work. 

However, education officials and advocacy groups have repeatedly argued that while they want to reopen schools safely, they need a lot more federal money to do so as state and local tax revenues drop precipitously. One recent push from House Democrats calls for $305 billion in emergency aid for K-12 schools. That's more than four times as large as the U.S. Department of Education's fiscal 2020 budget, and more than five times as much as a coronavirus aid package passed by the House in May would provide directly to school districts. And federal funding came up in a Senate hearing earlier this week on reopening schools. 

Pandemic-related turmoil in schools could also become a big political issue, especially if schools open on schedule only to close again during the fall. 

The Reopen Our Schools Act is a political cousin to another idea that's made the rounds. 

In a piece published in late May by the conservative Heritage Foundation, Lindsey Burke argued that families should get a prorated refund based on state and local spending in their district from the start of March through the end of the academic year.

"K-12 school districts ... have made a promise to families; namely, that in exchange for significant property tax payments, sales tax charges, bond referenda, and income tax duties, they would provide an education to their children," wrote Burke, who's the director of the foundation's Center for Education Policy. "Too many districts are failing to uphold their end of that contractual obligation."

Burke's idea will be dismissed, for obvious reasons, by local school districts and others. But it remains to be seen how much public dissatisfaction arises from how schools do or don't manage big challenges next fall—and how that sentiment could affect the Nov. 3 election. 

Banks previously made education headlines for proposing that military families get access to education savings accounts. That push, which took place early in the Trump administration, didn't get very far, however. 

Photo: Teacher Jane Cooper uses a 2-meter (just over 6 feet) ruler and pipe to check seat spacings in her classroom at Lostock Hall Primary School in Poynton, England. --AP Photo/Jon Super

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