Josh Hawley Challenges Democrats' Budget Reconciliation With Funding Freeze for Closed Schools

GOP Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has proposed legislation that would withhold federal funding from schools that refuse to reopen for in-person classes.

Hawley introduced an amendment to President Joe Biden's economic relief package that would bar schools from federal coronavirus relief funds if teachers and students aren't meeting in person.

"In spite of overwhelming evidence that schools can reopen safely, partisan advocates are using children's education as a cudgel to push their radical agendas," Hawley said in a statement.

He cited a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found little evidence of COVID-19 transmission in schools. The study said schools can safely reopen with protective methods, such as social distancing and mask mandates.

On Wednesday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that schools can safely reopen even if teachers are not vaccinated.

Data suggest school settings do not result in rapid spread of #COVID19 when mitigation measures are followed, including masking, decreased density, and proper ventilation. #CNNTownHall

— Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH (@CDCDirector) January 28, 2021

National Education Association President Becky Pringle told Newsweek, "Senator Hawley's amendment to the budget resolution is no more than a veiled threat to bully educators and is a regurgitation of the Trump-DeVos bluster that went nowhere.

"It's time to move on from petty, failed political stunts. Our educators—who have been doing extraordinary work under the most difficult circumstances—and all students, families and communities across the country deserve nothing less than the resources to keep everyone in the school community healthy and safe," Pringle said.

Hawley's move is a part of a bipartisan effort to reopen schools across the nation as soon as possible—but strategies for reopening have differed across party lines.

Biden's $1.9 trillion relief package prioritizes the reopening of schools by sending additional funds to all schools. The president has asked Congress for at least $130 billion in explicit funding for schools and $350 billion in additional "flexible" funding that would support national school districts. Biden is aiming to have most K-8 schools open by his 100th day in office.

"The federal government should put an end to this two-tiered education system for the haves and the have-nots by incentivizing schools to safely reopen," Hawley said in his statement.

Josh Hawley
Senator Josh Hawley questions Isabella Casillas Guzman, who is nominated to be the administrator of the Small Business Administration, during her confirmation hearing on February 3. Bill O'Leary-Pool/Getty Images

Democrats in the House and Senate filed a joint budget resolution on Monday to pass Biden's package without any Republican votes.

"Federal funding is no obstacle here," Senate Minority Leader McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "That's more goalpost-moving. Congress has poured more than $110 billion into making education safe. As of last week, states and school districts had only spent about $4 billion of the roughly $68 billion we set aside for K-12 schools. That leaves $64 billion in the pipeline already."

School districts across the nation that are pushing for reopening have received pressure from teacher unions citing health and safety concerns.

McConnell was critical of teacher unions on the Senate floor on Wednesday. "In my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, the largest school district in the state has a union-funded Board of Education vice chair. He's now saying that even if all school personnel get vaccines, he'd still be reluctant to open schools," the Kentucky Republican said.

.@LeaderMcConnell: In my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, the largest school district in the state has a union-funded Board of Education Vice-Chair. He’s now saying that even if all school personnel get vaccines, he’d still be reluctant to open schools. https://t.co/9d5qKbDeTQ

— Senator McConnell Press (@McConnellPress) February 3, 2021

Pringle told Newsweek, "Now we're seeing too many politicians attempt to cover their own tracks by blaming educators for their failures to provide enough funding. The Senate GOP's proposed plan wouldn't even give schools enough money to ensure soap and paper towels so students can wash their hands, much less the robust, effective mitigation strategies that the CDC recommends for a safe and equitable return to in-person instruction."

Hawley's statement did not explain how relief funds would be kept from schools, nor what criteria schools would need to meet in order to receive the aid.

Newsweek reached out to Hawley's office for comment but did hear back in time for publication.

This story was updated on February 4 with comments by National Education Association President Becky Pringle.