WASHINGTON — Tucked into the $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue law is something of a surprise coming from a Democratic Congress and a president long seen as a champion of public education — nearly $3 billion earmarked for private schools.
More surprising is who got it there: Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader whose loyalty to his constituents diverged from the wishes of his party, and Randi Weingarten, the leader of one of the nation’s most powerful teachers’ unions, who acknowledged that the federal government had an obligation to help all schools recover from the pandemic, even those who do not accept her group.
The deal, which came after Mr. Schumer was lobbied by the powerful Orthodox Jewish community in New York City, riled other Democratic leaders and public school advocates who have spent years beating back efforts by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans to funnel federal money to private schools, including in the last two coronavirus relief bills.
Democrats had railed against the push by President Donald J. Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to use pandemic relief bills to aid private schools, only to do it themselves.
And the private school provision materialized even after House Democrats expressly sought to curtail such funding by effectively capping coronavirus relief for private education in the bill at about $200 million. Mr. Schumer, in the 11th hour, struck the House provision and inserted $2.75 billion — about 12 times more funding than the House had allowed.
“We never anticipated Senate Democrats would proactively choose to push us down the slippery slope of funding private schools directly,” said Sasha Pudelski, the advocacy director at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, one of the groups that wrote letters to Congress protesting the carve-out. “The floodgates are open and now with bipartisan support, why would private schools not ask for more federal money?”
Mr. Schumer’s move created significant intraparty clashes behind the scenes as Congress prepared to pass one of the most critical funding bills for public education in modern history. Senator Patty Murray, the chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was said to have been so unhappy that she fought to secure last-minute language that stipulated the money be used for “nonpublic schools that enroll a significant percentage of low‐income students and are most impacted by the qualifying emergency.”
“I’m proud of what the American Rescue Plan will deliver to our students and schools and in this case specifically, I’m glad Democrats better targeted these resources toward students the pandemic has hurt the most,” Ms. Murray said in a statement.
Jewish leaders in New York have long sought help for their sectarian schools, but resistance in the House prompted them to turn to Mr. Schumer, said Nathan J. Diament, the executive director for public policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, who contended that public schools had nothing to complain about.
“It’s still the case that 10 percent of America’s students are in nonpublic schools, and they are just as impacted by the crisis as the other 90 percent, but we’re getting a much lower percentage overall,” he said, adding, “We’re very appreciative of what Senator Schumer did.”
Mr. Schumer also faced pressure from a number of leaders in New York’s Catholic school ecosystem.
In a statement to Jewish Insider, Mr. Schumer said, “This fund, without taking any money away from public schools, will enable private schools, like yeshivas and more, to receive assistance and services that will cover Covid-related expenses they incur as they deliver quality education for their students.”
The magnitude of the overall education funding — more than double the amount of schools funding allocated in the last two relief bills combined — played some part in the concession that private schools should continue to receive billions in relief funds. The $125 billion in funding for K-12 education requires districts to set aside percentages of funding to address learning loss, invest in summer school and other programming to help students recover from educational disruptions during the pandemic.
The law also targets long-underserved students, allocating $3 billion in funding for special education programming under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and $800 million in dedicated funding to identify and support homeless students.
“Make no mistake, this bill provides generous funding for public schools,” a spokesman for Mr. Schumer said in a statement. “But there are also many private schools which serve large percentages of low-income and disadvantaged students who also need relief from the Covid crisis.”
Proponents of the move argue that it was merely a continuation of the same amount afforded to private schools — which also had access to the government’s aid program for small businesses earlier in the pandemic — in a $2.3 trillion catchall package passed in December. But critics noted that was when Republicans controlled the Senate, and Democrats had signaled they wanted to take a different direction. They also contend that Mr. Schumer’s decision came at the expense of public education, given that the version of the bill that initially passed the House had about $3 billion more allocated for primary and secondary schools.
Mr. Schumer’s move caught his Democratic colleagues off guard, according to several people familiar with deliberations, and spurred aggressive efforts on the part of advocacy groups to reverse it. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union and a powerful ally of the Biden administration, raised its objections with the White House, according to several people familiar with the organization’s efforts.
In a letter to lawmakers, the association’s director of government affairs wrote that while it applauded the bill, “we would be remiss if we did not convey our strong disappointment in the Senate’s inclusion of a Betsy DeVos-era $2.75 billion for private schools — despite multiple avenues and funding previously made available to private schools.”
Among the Democrats who were displeased with Mr. Schumer’s reversal was Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who told him that she preferred the provision Democrats had secured in the House version, according to people familiar with their conversation. They also said Representative Robert C. Scott, the chairman of the House education committee, was “very upset” about both the substance and the process of Mr. Schumer’s revision, and had his staff communicate that he was “insulted.”
Integral to swaying Democrats to go along, particularly Ms. Pelosi, was Ms. Weingarten, several people said. Ms. Weingarten reiterated to the speaker’s office what she expressed to Mr. Schumer’s when he made his decision: Not only would she not fight the provision, but it was also the right thing to do.
Last year, Ms. Weingarten led calls to reject orders from Ms. DeVos to force public school districts to increase the amount of federal relief funding they share with private schools, beyond what the law required to help them recover.
The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.
Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more
This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.
There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.
The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.
At the time, private schools were going out of business everyday, particularly small schools that served predominantly low-income students, and private schools were among the only ones still trying to keep their doors open for in-person learning during the pandemic.
But Ms. Weingarten said Ms. DeVos’s guidance “funnels more money to private schools and undercuts the aid that goes to the students who need it most” because the funding could have supported wealthy students.
This time around, Ms. Weingarten changed her tune.