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Senate GOP Sticks to School Choice Push in Slimmed Down Relief Proposal

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled a slimmed down coronavirus relief proposal Tuesday that continues a GOP push to include school choice measures in the latest round of federal pandemic aid.

The Kentucky Republican pledged to hold a vote as soon as this week on the bill, which lacks the bipartisan support necessary to win full approval. It's the latest volley in frequently stalled discussions between both parties and the White House over the next COVID-19 aid package. In statements to the press, McConnell said he wanted to get senators on the record through a vote.

"Congress can, should, and must do more to help," he said. "The Senate will vote, and the American people will be watching."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, called the proposal an "emaciated bill" that is "only intended to help vulnerable Republican Senators by giving them a 'check the box' vote to maintain the appearance that they're not held hostage by their extreme right-wing that doesn't want to spend a nickel to help people."

The bill does not include some provisions Congressional Democrats have called essential, like assistance to state and local governments that district leaders have said are needed to help avert cuts to school staffing and programs.

The bill would provide an additional $105 billion to an education stabilization fund to help schools respond to the pandemic. As in the previous GOP proposal, it would condition two-thirds of aid to schools on plans to physically reopen school buildings. That provision remains even after the school year has started in most districts, and many have opted for continued remote learning..

The new proposal modifies some school choice provisions championed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. GOP Senate leaders had included in their previous bill, introduced in July.

Most notably, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, had pushed to include DeVos' Education Freedom Scholarship proposal in the bill. That proposal would provide federal tax credits totalling up to $5 billion a year for contributions to scholarships families could use to send their children to private schools or to purchase educational materials and services.

The push to include the proposal was reportedly a sticking point in negotiations. In an apparent attempt at compromise, the new proposal McConnell released Tuesday would not establish the program permanently, as Cruz had sought, instead establishing the tax credits for two years.

The bill would also authorize "emergency education freedom grants," state-administered scholarships families could use for private school tuition or other services if their children's education is interrupted by the pandemic. 

And it would allow families to use funds from tax-advantaged 529 savings plans, typically used to cover college or private school tuition, to pay for home-schooling expenses.

Liability Protections for Schools

The new proposal includes McConnell's plan to provide enhanced liability protections for businesses and public entities, including schools,

Under the bill's language, a civil suit would have to prove that an organization or business was not "making reasonable efforts" to abide by government guidance on responding to COVID-19 or that it had committed "gross negligence or willful misconduct" in failing to take virus precautions.

Education Week wrote more about liability concerns for schools here.


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