Biden’s budget would fund free community college and universal pre-k

The White House is asking Congress to double funds for high-poverty schools, boost special education funding by 25 percent and again increase the amount of Pell Grants for college students in poverty. The proposal also includes $100 million for a new program to encourage racial and socioeconomic school integration, and adds $30 million to the Office for Civil Rights.

“Across the country, we must focus our efforts on recovery. That means ensuring all students — especially those from underserved communities and those most impacted by the pandemic — receive the resources they need to thrive,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement Monday. The nation’s schools and colleges have received $281 billion in covid relief funds since the beginning of the pandemic.

Biden’s budget proposal comes as progress on his signature education programs stall. On the campaign trail, he pledged to make community college free and prekindergarten universal. The sweeping change would increase the number of years of guaranteed education from 13 to 17, allowing young people to attend school tuition-free from age 3 to 20. Biden sacrificed the college proposal to lower the price tag and advance negotiations, but the legislation still stalled as congressional Democrats were unable to coalesce around a final bill.

Earlier this month, though, Biden signaled he wanted to keep fighting for free community college in his State of the Union address.

“Let’s increase Pell Grants and increase our historic support of HBCUs, and invest in what Jill — our first lady who teaches full time — calls America’s best-kept secret: community colleges,” Biden said, referencing his wife, who is a community college instructor.

Still, education advocates and college access groups applauded this year’s budget proposal, calling the investments necessary to help students and schools still reeling from the pandemic.

“The proposed … increase in funding is crucial to helping all students, particularly those most impacted by the pandemic — students of color and students from low-income backgrounds — get their academic and social emotional needs met,” Denise Forte of Education Trust said.

Republicans have already expressed a distaste for the $5.8 trillion spending proposal. Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, said the spending proposal “harbors the same gross negligence that we saw just a year ago.”

The budget deal signed into law this month falls short of Biden’s policy ambitions on several key measures, including on Title I for high-poverty schools and special education, which could bode poorly for this proposal. It added $1 billion for high-poverty schools, still far below the $20 billion Biden had requested.

This month’s budget deal also eliminates pandemic-era school nutrition programs that allowed schools to feed all children, and to continue to serve meals when they could not meet nutritional requirements amid food shortages.

Still, it represents the biggest year-over-year increase in federal appropriations for education in at least the past 15 years, said Sarah Abernathy, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding. And it came on top of the $123 billion in coronavirus relief schools received.

“The world changed a lot between when the president proposed his budget and when Congress approved appropriations in terms of demands for defense funding, which were offset by limiting nondefense spending,” said Abernathy, a former Democratic staffer on the House Budget Committee. “Compromises were made … but this is still a significant increase in education funding.”

Abernathy said the pandemic put a lot of attention on education and the chronic underfunding of the sector. While coronavirus relief funding provided by Congress made a difference, she said, lawmakers seem to recognize in this fiscal 2022 budget that there are ongoing needs.

While some of Biden’s budget proposals were scaled back in the spending package passed this month, Congress honored his request to raise the maximum Pell Grant award for low-income students by $400, to $6,895 for the 2022-2023 academic year. This is the largest increase for the program in more than a decade. For this year, Biden is seeking another boost, aiming to increase the maximum grant by another $1,700.

The budget deal also provides $885 million, an increase of $96 million, for programs to strengthen minority-serving institutions, historically Black and tribal colleges, and other under-resourced institutions that serve large populations of students of color and those without financial means. The latest budget proposal seeks additional funding for these institutions, including $450 million to expand research and development efforts.

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