desktop computers in a classroom with no students

NCSL urged Congress to help permanently close the digital divide through investments in broadband infrastructure.

NCSL Briefs Congress on State-Federal Education Priorities

By Austin Reid | Feb. 12, 2021 | State Legislatures Magazine

America’s education system continues to be disrupted by the pandemic at every level. As state legislatures grapple with their responses and contemplate recovery, NCSL briefed Congress on what federal actions would be most beneficial to states and made the case for long-standing education priorities to maintain a strong state-federal relationship in education.

NCSL was joined by Delaware Senate President Pro Tempore David Sokola (D) and Utah Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner (R).

NCSL briefed Congress on the need for flexible state and local aid and explained how these funds could complement targeted education relief aid. States continue to face budget shortfalls as schools incur increased operational costs and students contend with potentially months of lost learning.

State legislators expressed bipartisan interest in three key pandemic response strategies for education that could require significant investment:

  • Address student learning loss. Legislators believe significant attention and investment is needed to pursue short- and long-term strategies to address student learning loss, which is estimated at eight or more months for the most vulnerable students.
  • Close the digital divide. NCSL urged Congress to help permanently close the digital divide through investments in broadband infrastructure and to maintain safe schools through infrastructure upgrades, like repairing or replacing HVAC systems.
  • Fully fund IDEA. NCSL called on Congress to fully fund its obligation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to cover 40% of the average cost of educating a child with disabilities. This is especially critical as students with disabilities have had their educational opportunity most impacted by the pandemic.

“The digital divide is something we’re working on in Delaware,” Sokola said. “The business community is a good partner to expand access and capacity in rural broadband deserts.”

And, with students at home, he added, testing mandate flexibility is “something we’re asking for relief on from the federal government.”

According to Millner, broadband access is critical to serving students. “We need to get that capability to rural areas and schools,” she said, also stressing the need for flexible federal funding timelines to maximize investments in rural broadband infrastructure. 

“The investment not only supports our rural schools but also telemedicine options in health care,” she added.

Higher Education

In addition to pandemic response priorities, NCSL also discussed federal policies to make college more affordable. State legislators continue to view the Pell Grant as the best means of making college more affordable. Recently, states have paired state investments with the Pell Grant to establish college promise programs that provide tuition-free college to students with the greatest needs.

NCSL also addressed congressional proposals for free college through a state-federal affordability partnership. In some partnership proposals, the federal government would offer matching funds to incentivize state investment in higher education if a state agrees to requirements such as meeting the affordability guarantee for all eligible students and maintaining current levels of higher ed funding.

NCSL welcomed the opportunity to discuss these proposals with Congress and stressed that state and federal collaboration is a fundamental aspect of a healthy state-federal partnership in higher education.

According to Sokola, student loan forgiveness is urgent in certain hard-hit fields, such as the culinary and hospitality industries. “These people have loans that have piled up and they have little way of taking care of them,” he said.

And Millner cited concern over a significant drop in community college enrollment. “With the combination of this pandemic and unemployment, we didn’t see students returning,” she said, noting the importance of getting college-aged students back into school to provide access to jobs that will help support their families. “We need a combination of access to the Pell program and reconnection to our students,” she said.

Austin Reid is the education committee director in NCSL’s State-Federal Division.

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