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Legislative Update

End of August Wrap-Up Part 2: A look at at what’s happening at the federal level

by | Aug 31, 2020 | Federal Budget, Federal Issue, Legislative Update Blog | 0 comments

USDA Extends Certain Federal School Meal Plan Waivers Through Dec. 31
Today (8/31), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it will extend certain federal school meal waivers that had been extended through August 2020 until the end of the current calendar year.  According to the USDA, the move means summer meal programs can continue operating as funding allows.  Preliminary news reports indicate this will permit schools to offer food to all kids, regardless of income or enrollment, through the end of 2020 “as funding allows.”  Among other things, the waivers announced today extend meal pattern waivers, congregate meal waivers and meal time waivers and allow parents to continue to pick up meals on weekdays and weekends from schools or other designated sites rather than only at schools.

A press statement released by the USDA states, “The flexibilities allow summer meal program operators to continue serving free meals to all children into the fall months.”  This appears to be a complete reversal of the USDA’s earlier position, which would have required school cafeterias and school nutrition departments to resume charging students for food and to turn away any children not enrolled in their school district beginning tomorrow, September 1, 2020.

To see all the COVID-19 waivers the USDA Food and Nutrition Services has granted to date specifically to Wisconsin click here.

Impasse Continues over Federal COVID-19 Relief
Efforts in Congress to provide a new round of COVID-19 relief have been stalled for the past several weeks. Lawmakers have largely left Washington D.C. for their annual August recess and are not expected to return until mid-September… barring a breakthrough in pandemic negotiations. Congressional leaders from both parties, along with the White House, continue to be at odds over the size and content of a legislative package to provide pandemic relief. On Thursday last week, House Speaker Pelosi and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows spoke by phone to discuss potentially restarting these negotiations more formally. According to reports, this call was not productive.
The White House, and some in Congress, favor a piecemeal approach which would prioritize smaller pieces of legislation where agreement already exists—such as on extending unemployment assistance—but House Democrats have mostly remained firm in their commitment to a comprehensive package addressing a slew of issues created by the pandemic. While additional emergency K-12 education funding is one area where agreement appears to exist, discussions are still fluid regarding the potential conditions tying this funding to schools re-opening for in-person learning.

As this delay continues, the 2021 federal fiscal year is fast approaching. (It begins on October 1, 2020). This deadline has the potential to re-focus stalled efforts to negotiate a new COVID-19 relief package by forcing lawmakers to combine this “must-pass” budget legislation with a forthcoming relief package. If no deal is reached, it is likely a continuing resolution would be introduced to prevent the government from shutting down prior to the election.

RNC Highlights School Choice
The Republican National Committee hosted its party’s convention last week, culminating in President Trump acceptance of his party’s nomination for President with a 70-minute speech. Throughout the four-day event, the RNC’s program highlighted school choice (e.g., private school vouchers ) on numerous occasions. During his acceptance speech Thursday evening, the President announced that he would prioritize the expansion of charter schools and seek to provide “school choice to every family in America.” Throughout his remarks, the President drew a contrast between his Administration’s support for these options and the position of the Democratic Party nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.  U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a staunch advocate of school choice, did not formally speak during the convention, but she did attend the President’s speech.

Courts Again Block USED’s Equitable Services Rule
Earlier this year, as the U.S. Department of Education (USED) began to implement the various education provisions in the CARES Act and distribute related funding to states, the agency proposed a new rule at the direction of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that would compel school districts to share a greater amount of their COVID-19 relief funding with private schools. Known as “equitable services,” the rule was initially fast-tracked by USED to go into effect more quickly, in interim form, in an effort to drive school district spending plans relative to the CARES Act funding, specially the. ESSER fund component of the CARES Act. However, several state’s Attorneys General (AG), including Wisconsin’s AG, sued the department over this proposed rule seeking to block its implementation.

The week before last, a federal judge in Washington state ruled in favor of that state’s AG’s, but it was unclear if the court’s injunction applied outside Washington state. Last week, a different U.S. District judge in California issued a ruling definitively blocking DeVos from implementing or enforcing her rule in at least eight states and some of the nation’s largest public school districts.  The ruling specifically blocked the rule from going into effect in Michigan, California, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and several cities such as New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and San Francisco.

The pair of rulings amount to a major setback to DeVos’ current efforts to channel more federal funding to private schools and will prevent USED from enforcing this proposed rule until a final decision, from a higher court, resolves the legal dispute sometime in the future.  You can view a copy of the WASB’s comments opposing the USED’s interim final rule here

White House Announces Deal to Procure Rapid Result COVID Tests
Late last week, the White House announced a $750 million deal to buy 150 million rapid Covid-19 tests from Abbott Laboratories. The deal could substantially expand the nation’s capacity for rapid testing. According to White House sources, the plan is to distribute the test kits to schools and long-term care facilities. No word yet on when they might be made available.

Ahead of the announcement, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency-use authorization to the company for the so-called BinaxNow tests, which cost $5 and can produce results in 15 minutes without the need for any lab equipment.  The rapid response test kit is roughly the size of a credit card and involves a nasal swab. Tests could be administered in a doctor’s or school nurse’s office and rely on technology similar to the that used in home pregnancy test kits. The company says it expects to be able to produce about 50 million of the test kits per month by October.

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