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COVID-19 Aid Bill Advances, but Relief for Schools Remains Far Away

The U.S. House of Representatives may have approved a new coronavirus relief bill that would provide tens of billions of dollars for schools—but it doesn't mean substantial progress has been made on getting K-12 emergency aid. 

The second version of the House Democrats' HEROES Act, passed by a narrow margin Oct. 1, includes $175 billion in coronavirus aid for K-12, plus additional money to provide internet access to students and an education fund for governors, among other provisions. HEROES 2.0 represents a win for lobbyists and others pushing for virus aid relief specifically for schools, although it contains less than half the state and local government relief of the first HEROES bill that could also be used to prop up education budgets in a faltering economy.

But the House's vote to pass the bill was, like other previous votes on COVID-19 relief packages, not a direct step forward in the process. That's because the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, won't consider the legislation. That was true of the first HEROES Act, as well as a Senate GOP proposal that has a lot less money for education overall, would fund private school choice, and condition some of the aid on whether schools hold in-person classes. Democrats have rejected those last two provisions out of hand.

Negotiations between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin are ongoing, and it's too early to say that a relief deal won't be reached before the presidential election Nov. 3. But a breakthrough on those talks would have almost certainly have led Pelosi and her team to postpone any vote on HEROES 2.0 in favor of a grand coronavirus bargain. Funding for schools and state and local governments reportedly remains a sticking point in negotiations

In his talks with Pelosi, Mnuchin has pitched $150 billion for education as part of a compromise deal, although it's not clear how much of that would be earmarked for K-12, and many other details hadn't been worked on the education front. That's substantially more than the $105 billion for education in the Senate Republicans' latest proposal—a fact that could complicate talks, given GOP senators' opposition to relief bills with overall price tags like the ones Democrats have proposed—but less than the $225 billion for K-12 and higher education in HEROES 2.0. 

Meanwhile, the promise over the summer that Washington would pour a flood of cash into school budgets to help them pay for health and safety measures, connect students to the internet, and address concerns about academic struggles at the start of the 2020-21 school year, has faded away. That's left many educators and others bewildered and angry.

Since President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act in March, federal lawmakers have provided no additional emergency funding support for education, despite pledges from leaders in both parties that it was a top priority. 

Education associations and lobbyists are still pushing for relief, and say it's not too late for Congress to provide critical support for schools that are still struggling with the pandemic. Yet with federal lawmakers out on recess and tied up with campaigning throughout much if not all of October, there's no clear road ahead for a deal to get done. 

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