This year, the normal cadence of congressional activity – like so many other things – has been profoundly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In many communities, the town halls, constituent meetings, and community events that would normally define congressional recesses have been replaced with Zoom meetings, conference calls, and socially distant gatherings.
(Note: you can go to www.house.gov to connect to your congressional Members’ office and find out what specific events might be happening in your area.)
Against the backdrop of the unprecedented challenges facing our communities; however, federal lawmakers continue to debate and pass important legislation, including bills intended to aid in the recovery from COVID-19, federal appropriations for Fiscal Year 2021 (which begins October 1st), and more. We expect Congress to act sometime between now and October 1st on a fourth COVID related relief package and a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the federal government for the next fiscal year.
As lawmakers consider these key policies, input and action from leaders and organizations in the America Forward Coalition remains critical to the development of comprehensive, responsive legislation that meets the needs of our communities.
While many of the interactions with lawmakers and staff that would normally happen in person have moved online, there are still a number of ways leaders and organizations can engage effectively, including:
- Participating in virtual advocacy efforts (including virtual “Hill Days,” briefings, and other opportunities);
- Attending community events (like virtual town halls and community forums);
- Setting up one-on-one meetings with legislators and/or staff via video conference or over the phone;
- Regularly sharing important research, updates, success stories, and other resources with policymakers; and
- Sending letters/emails or making phone calls to lawmakers to advocate for specific policies;
In fact, in a moment when so many states and communities are confronting the COVID-19 pandemic without a policy blueprint, engagement and advocacy are more important than ever to ensuring that policy makers advance legislation that not only provides the resources necessary to mitigate the impact of the virus, but advances innovative solutions that make our communities more equitable and resilient in the long run.
Over the past several months, America Forward has advocated for a number of specific priorities – both in the context of COVID-19 and the appropriations process – that will advance equity, prioritize evidence and outcomes, promote innovation, help our communities recover, and support the work of organizations in the America Forward Coalition.
Education and Workforce Priorities During COVID-19. Since the passage of the CARES Act in March, the last major piece of COVID-19 relief legislation, congressional leaders and the White House have continued to negotiate over what to include in a fourth major relief package (“COVID-4”). As you may recall, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act in April, but the Senate did not take up that bill and instead offered their own proposals. No final bill has passed; and as mentioned above, we expect a COVID-4 package to pass sometime in September.
Earlier this spring, America Forward sent a letter to congressional leaders advocating for significant funding increases in major education and workforce programs to be included the final COVID-4 package, including :
- More robust funding through the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) and Head Start to support early education, and targeted support for early education providers impacted by the crisis;
- At least an additional $175 billion in funding for K-12 education to support state and local efforts to continue and deepen high-quality learning amid massive disruption. Plus, an additional $13 billion for IDEA, $12 billion for Title I and $1 billion for Title III to help school districts address the needs of learners facing the most significant barriers;
- $2 billion in additional funding for the E-Rate program and changes to the Lifeline program to ensure students have access to the high-speed broadband necessary to participate in virtual learning;
- Additional funding to support higher education students’ needs such as housing, technology assistance for online learning, or travel; and to support higher education institutions that are losing staggering sums after closing for safety reasons and refunding tuition, room and board;
- $15 billion in investments in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) for Adult, Youth and Dislocated Workers programs; for Adult Education; and Career and Technical Education;
- More robust support for employment social enterprises (ESEs);
- $250 million in emergency funding for the YouthBuild program at the Labor Department so programs can continue to serve current participants and scale up for the inevitable surge in demand; and
- Combining support for subsidized employment with an intentional focus on evidence to drive more positive, equitable workforce outcomes, as described here.
Robust National Service. National service corps members will play a vital role in rebuilding and revitalizing our communities in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. As such, America Forward supports legislation like The CORPS Act, which would dramatically increase the number of AmeriCorps positions over a three-year response and recovery period, in part to meet the projected need for as many as 300,000 public health workers and the need for expanded supports in our schools. We must also expand partnerships between AmeriCorps and federal health agencies and increase the AmeriCorps living allowance to ensure all Americans can step up to serve regardless of their financial circumstances.
Advancing Equity and Outcomes through Federal Appropriations. In April, the Coalition sent a letter to the leadership of the congressional appropriations committees calling for bold investments in those federal programs that are supported by our Coalition and the communities they serve. In July, the House of Representatives took a first step in passing a six-bill appropriations “minibus” that included Fiscal Year 2021 funding for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. The bill passed by the House includes critical funding increases for major education programs like Title I, teacher training and preparations programs, Pell Grants, and IDEA; as well as, more funding for job training, Head Start, and other programs important to our Coalition.
Along with funding increases for major programs, America Forward was encouraged by support for specific programs and policies that reflect the priorities of the Coalition, including:
- $172 million for a new Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Initiative to support SEL and “whole child” approaches to education. Funding at this level would support a necessary shift in our education system to focus on a holistic approach to learning. It reflects the priorities detailed in America Forward’s Advancing Whole-Learner Education initiative – a new effort aimed at deepening public engagement and expanding federal support for whole-learner approaches to education.
- $500,000 for an interagency feasibility study to explore an innovative new mid-career public sector fellowship that would bring top talent into the public sector from non-traditional sources; increase diversity, equity, and inclusion; achieve positive systems change; and make government more focused on outcomes. A version of this proposal was included in United to Move America Forward: A Policy Playbook from 100+ Social Innovators to Advance Equity and Opportunity in America.
You can find more information on other provisions in the bill here.
These policies and funding decisions are critically important to helping our communities grapple with and overcome COVID-19, and to seizing the opportunity to reimagine our education, workforce, and criminal justice systems in a way that is more innovative, equitable, and resilient.
In the coming weeks and months, America Forward Coalition members and partners must continue engaging with policymakers at the Federal, state, and local level to help ensure the passage and appropriate implementation of these policies – to drive critical resources to individuals, families, and communities in need.
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