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Trump administration, congressional Republicans eye tying school aid to reopening in next funding bill

The debate comes as Congress prepares for next round of coronavirus relief talks.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks at a news conference outside the Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital on July 14, 2020, in Greenville, Ky. (Greg Eans/Messenger-Inquirer/AP)

The White House and Senate Republicans are developing plans to prod schools to reopen by attaching incentives or conditions to tens of billions of dollars of new aid as part of the next coronavirus relief bill, people involved in the talks said Wednesday.

The deliberations come as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) prepares to unveil legislation next week that would serve as the GOP’s opening offer for negotiations on what could be Congress’s last major coronavirus spending bill before the November elections.

Republican officials familiar with the negotiations said the bill may include somewhere between $50 billion and $100 billion for elementary and secondary schools, with one person familiar with the talks saying the target was about $70 billion.

Despite pressure from Trump, major districts say schools will stay closed in fall

Negotiators are looking at $20 billion to $30 billion for higher education, GOP officials said. The officials cautioned that the sums were fluid and that no final decisions had been made.

GOP lawmakers and administration officials are also debating how to use the legislation to encourage schools to reopen, which is an increasing area of focus for President Trump and Vice President Pence. They argue that children are far better off, academically and emotionally, when they are physically present in school. Many parents cannot go to work if their children are at home. Some observers also see a political imperative for Trump to portray the country as recovering from the coronavirus crisis.

States and cities are gripped by intense debates about how and whether to reopen school campuses in August and September amid concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus. Although Trump has insisted that schools reopen, a number of school districts are planning to begin with online-only learning at first or with a hybrid approach combining online instruction and classroom learning.

Last week, Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that do not reopen because of coronavirus concerns. He cannot do that, but he could try to attach strings to funding in the coming relief package.

The White House and Republicans are debating whether to take a carrot or a stick approach with the aid, according to several officials involved in the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. Some White House officials are pushing for conditioning the aid on schools reopening partly or fully, but others involved prefer to offer incentives to schools to take steps to reopen.

It is unclear how the final proposal will be structured, and it is likely to encounter intense opposition from Democrats, who say Republicans are pushing schools to open prematurely before health conditions dictate. But key Republicans have grown increasingly vocal in recent days about the importance of schools reopening physically, arguing that keeping children home from school is disruptive.

“There’s no doubt that there is more harm to a child’s health being out of school, and that encompasses nutritional health, mental health, physical health,” Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, said in an interview Wednesday. “And, clearly, our scientists on the task force agree that children need to be in school in person.”

At an event outside a hospital in Kentucky on Wednesday, McConnell was asked what he would say to parents or teachers who might fear sending students back to school, given the rise in coronavirus cases in his state and nationally.

“I think they fear, more, children being stuck at home this fall,” McConnell said.

“It can be safely done and so you have to weigh the consequences. What are the consequences of staying home versus being back in school?” McConnell added. “Clearly, even though some school districts out West are shutting down again, I think all the evidence indicates that distance learning for kids is not as good. They’ve already lost part of the last semester, [and] we need to find a way to safely get back to work.”

However, a new Quinnipiac Poll released Wednesday illustrated the risks for the GOP on the issue. It found that only 31 percent of respondents think it’s safe to send students to elementary, middle and high schools this fall, while 62 percent say it’s not safe. And just 29 percent approve of Trump’s handling of the school reopening issue, while 61 percent disapprove.

McConnell has said repeatedly that education spending — along with health care and jobs — is going to be a central theme of the next coronavirus bill. He said this week that the federal government should make a financial commitment to helping schools reopen safely, including spending money on protective equipment and transportation.

Republicans also plan to include funding for families that want to send their children to private or religious schools, according to several people familiar with the planning. That could take the form of direct aid to private schools or a tax credit that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has pushed and that Democrats strongly oppose. Her plan would reimburse donations to state scholarship funds by offering a 100 percent tax credit. The scholarship funds help students pay private school tuition and other educational expenses.

In recent weeks, Trump has pushed both school choice and reopening, and his allies see the opportunity to advance both goals in the pending legislation. Democrats, whose votes will be needed, are eager to send more money to strapped school districts but have opposed pushing schools to open before they are ready.

“Everyone wants our schools to reopen, but the federal government must lead the way by funding the safety measures that would open the doors of schools throughout New York and the country in a way that helps ensure the coronavirus does not needlessly spread or infect teachers, kids or staff,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

It is unclear how congressional Republicans would try to define whether schools are sufficiently open to qualify for funding. Another question is whether the rules should be different depending on the number of coronavirus cases in a geographic area and who will decide whether a reopening plan is sufficient.

Also unclear is whether the legislation will offer extra funding for schools that reopen in a certain way or will reduce the allocation for districts that do not open, said one senior Senate GOP aide, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. “There are those who would rather incentivize good behavior, and others want to punish bad behavior,” the aide said.

At least some of the funding is likely to be restricted to reopening activities such as renting more buses to avoid student crowding during rides to and from school, and to acquire masks and cleaning services, this aide said.

Rising GOP support for significant funding comes as Trump and DeVos have pushed hard for schools to reopen. Outside groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics and, on Wednesday, the National Academy of Sciences, have agreed that staying out of school is detrimental to children and strongly recommended reopening where possible. Both groups also recommended increased federal funding to cover the costs of reopening safely, including masks, enhanced cleaning and reconfigured classrooms.

The debate in the Senate will center on how much to send to schools, and whether to include a school choice component. Some expect there will be a trade-off between more money for public schools vs. funding for families using private schools.

Congress devoted more than $13 billion to elementary and secondary schools in the Cares Act in March, but Senate Democrats say much more is needed than the sums Republicans are considering. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Health and Education Committee, has proposed $175 billion for K-12 schools. But with McConnell aiming to keep the price tag on the next bill at around $1 trillion, education spending will be competing with a multitude of other priorities, including health-care assistance, unemployment insurance and another round of stimulus checks for individual Americans.

Congress pumped $3 trillion into the economy through four bipartisan bills in March and April but has not passed any major coronavirus legislation in several months, despite Democrats’ demands for immediate additional action. McConnell has been insisting on taking time to see the impact of the money already spent. Congress is on recess but returns next week and will have three weeks to negotiate what McConnell has said will be the final major coronavirus relief bill.