President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, walk with Principal Kelly Denny, during a visit to Yorktown Elementary School, Monday, May 3, 2021, in Yorktown, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) | Evan Vucci/AP Photo
Without states’ cooperation, there’s little the Biden administration could do to guarantee the benefits it’s promising to families in all parts of the country, even if the president manages to muscle them through Congress as part of his $1.8 trillion Families Plan.
“We’re not big fans of the federal government stepping in. And they do not have any constitutional authority to step in in the education realm,” said Chris Kapenga, the Republican president of the Wisconsin state Senate. “I do not see Wisconsin getting on board in any way with either the pre-K or the technical college.”
For Biden, the early resistance suggests a potentially enduring struggle over a marquee proposal, one the president touted prominently in an address to Congress in which he called for national unity. The result could be a patchwork policy that deepens the divide between red and blue states.
Disputes with even a handful of states over the pre-school and community college proposals — which combined would cost over $300 billion — would disrupt Biden’s aim to provide an additional four years of public education in the U.S., a goal he says is central to his quest to expand the role of government in society and one he says is essential to keeping the country competitive in the 21st century.
Other aspects of the plan will rely on state cooperation, too: Biden’s proposal would offer child-care funding by building upon an existing state-level infrastructure program, called the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and also make permanent a children’s school nutrition program for the summer that was expanded during the pandemic.
Some Washington lawmakers — including at least one key Democrat — are also skeptical of the idea of spending hundreds of billions of federal dollars on programs that they say states can set up themselves. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose vote will be pivotal in the 50-50 divided Senate, warned that “you have to be very careful” with the universal pre-K proposal to ensure that “states pull their own weight.”
“We got pre-K in West Virginia, and we didn’t have the federal government step up to the plate on that,” Manchin told CNN. “We did it.”
State-level Republicans have expressed a similar view. In Alabama, which is a leader nationally for its pre-K programs, Gov. Kay Ivey criticized the president’s plan for being overly expensive and said the federal government “could learn a thing or two” from her state.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey criticized the president’s plan for being overly expensive and said the federal government “could learn a thing or two” from her state. | Vasha Hunt/AP Photo
“Yet again, we are seeing an appetite for spending trillions of dollars our federal piggy bank can’t cover,” Ivey said in a statement. In Alabama, she said, “we have invested in a program that works, while still being good stewards of our taxpayer dollars. That’s just one example of success of how to do things the right way.”
While it is still unclear exactly how the plan will be structured, other Republican officials pushed back on the idea of taking any federal money because of the strings they expect will be attached to it.
“I guarantee you there’s going to be some requirements in there that may not be palatable to our state and the way we govern our state,” said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who served in the Florida state legislature before coming to Washington this year. “The devil is always in the details, but knowing how the federal government tends to operate with money that it likes to dangle, that’s not something I think the state of Florida will be interested in.”
Beyond federal overreach, a central issue for state leaders is the cost of the programs in spite of promises of generous contributions from Washington, especially because states — unlike the federal government — have to balance their budgets. Donalds called the free community college tuition plan a “nonstarter” for Florida, adding: “There’s just not resources to go around.”
There’s also a concern that the federal government could shirk its financial responsibilities in the future and ultimately reduce its share of the funding, so “the state would hold more and more of the bag,” Kapenga of Wisconsin said.
Others warn that the federal-state partnerships would infringe on parents’ choices in educating their children, a red-meat issue that has gotten more traction in recent years amid public school debates about curricula covering the history of slavery in the U.S. and rights of transgender student athletes.
“There’s going to be a big fight on this,” said Jon Schweppe, director of policy and government affairs for the conservative American Principles Project.
“We’re worried about expanding the government monopoly over education and having pretty aggressive indoctrination of kids in pre-K,” he said. “Those are the concerns that are going to be reflected by the states.”
The White House has yet to release complete details on how it envisions the American Families Plan working in practice, and Congress is still drafting legislative language. But a senior Biden administration official acknowledged the possible confrontation with states by noting that the White House is including provisions within its proposal that would allow the federal government to go around them if needed — by working directly with a locality on pre-school, for example, or partnering with community colleges individually on tuition.
The official, speaking to reporters during a press briefing late last month, said the White House is “hopeful that we’ll be able to fully realize the program with partnerships with states,” partly because there has historically been bipartisan support for both ideas.
But states have broad authority to opt out of federal programs, a precedent that was made clear after a Supreme Court ruling in 2012 allowed them to choose not to expand their Medicaid programs, an important provision of the Affordable Care Act. A dozen states still have not done so despite promises of federal support covering 90 percent of the costs, offering an indication of where the Biden administration could run into difficulties in orchestrating a massive expansion of benefits.
The path forward and how willing states are to adopt the new measures will likely depend on how prescriptive the Families Plan is if it passes — and whether the White House recognizes that stringent requirements will be seen in many conservative states as a nonstarter.
Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican, said a partnership that allowed states a degree of autonomy to create their own programs would likely be welcomed in his state. But, he added, “if you have Washington do like they did with Medicaid expansion, that they tell you, ‘Here’s what you have to do,’ … then probably not.”
“Does it mean you have to do exactly what Washington wants you to do, or can you create something that would work in your state that would get the outcome that everybody desires?” Sexton said. “That makes a difference.”
A partnership that would give states the autonomy to set up their own systems while benefiting from federal contributions would likely “get the best buy-in” from the most states, said Michele Streeter, a senior policy analyst focused on federal issues at the Institute for College Access & Success.
But even generous federal support might not be enough to convince states not to walk away. The legislation which Biden’s community college proposal is largely based on offers 75 percent federal funding, with the state responsible for 25 percent — less generous than the Medicaid expansion.
“At a certain point, a partnership requires both sides to enter into it,” Streeter said. “I’m not sure you could ever make it 100 percent airtight to the point where states will always buy in.”
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