Public Policy News – October 2020
Senate Committee Democratic Staff Releases COVID-19 Health Equity Report
NIH Agency Update
EO Creates Coronavirus Mental Health Working Group
Senate Hearing Focuses on FAFSA
ED Releases Final Rule on Freedom of Speech and Faith-Based Organizations
CSWE and the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) recently provided input on the development of priorities and working group activities for the Council on Economic Mobility. Led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the interagency collaboration is focused on using federal authorities to promote family-sustaining careers and economic mobility for low-income Americans. Among several proposed recommendations, CSWE and SSWR note that the council “should address providing education for low-income Americans to improve retirement readiness and support reducing economic inequities for older Americans.”
On September 22, President Trump released Executive Order (EO) 13950, titled “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping.” The purpose of the executive action is to “combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating” and “divisive concepts” and includes restrictions on federal contractors and federal grant recipients. CSWE released a statement on the EO, which has been widely condemned in the education community, and joined a letter from other higher education associations calling on the administration to rescind the EO and related guidance. The letter notes, “higher education, our country’s business and military communities, and other sectors of American society fundamentally agree that promoting and enabling diversity and inclusion are essential to the long-term strength, economic competitiveness, and security of our nation.”
On September 30, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions released a report titled COVID-19 & Achieving Health Equity: Congressional Action is Necessary to Address Racism and Inequality in the U.S. Health Care System. The report details how seriously communities of color have been affected by COVID-19. It notes that the disproportionate impact is not a coincidence, but rather that the health disparities exacerbated by the crisis have long existed and are the result of systemic racism. Specifically, the report outlines additional factors or social determinants of health that contribute to ongoing health disparities including economic stability, education access and quality, social and community context, health-care access and quality, and neighborhood and built environment. It offers 30 recommendations to Congress and stresses that immediate support is needed for the nation’s public health infrastructure to ensure assistance to communities most in need.
Over the past month the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has used the regularly scheduled advisory council meetings to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the longstanding explicit and institutional racism and discrimination against communities of color. A coalition comprising the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), National Institute of Aging, and Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research has approved 52 research administrative supplements for COVID-19 research focused on the social, economic, and behavioral implications of COVID-19. The coalition plans to release new grants in fiscal year 2021. Director of NIMH, Dr. Josh Gordon, noted widespread mental health effects from the pandemic and that NIMH is prioritizing intervention research to address some of these detrimental mental health impacts. As NIH makes progress on therapeutic and vaccine development, it will shift focus to the societal impacts of COVID-19 in future research grants.
NIH recognizes its role in addressing institutional racism and discrimination not only in the biomedical research workforce but also in biomedical research. A common theme among institutes is increasing diversity and inclusion in the research environment, which has prompted individual working groups among leadership. Discussions focus largely on improving the diversity of NIH funded researchers and finding innovative solutions to increase participation of underrepresented groups in clinical research. A few institutes also have approved concept clearances tied to social determinants of health and health equity research that will become future funding opportunities, which may offer many possibilities for social work researchers.
President Trump issued an executive order, “Saving Lives Through Increased Support for Mental- and Behavioral-Health Needs,” which directs federal agencies to establish a Coronavirus Mental Health Working Group. The working group will be led by the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and composed of representatives from the Department of Justice, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Education, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, among others. It will consider mental and behavioral health conditions of vulnerable populations affected by COVID-19 and assess evidence-based models that can support these at-risk groups. The working group has 45 days to “develop and submit to the President a report that outlines a plan for improved service coordination between all relevant public and private stakeholders and executive departments and agencies (agencies) to assist individuals in crisis so that they receive effective treatment and recovery services.”
In perhaps his last education hearing as chair of Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) pushed to update the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. During a hearing titled "Time to Finish Fixing the FAFSA,” Chairman Alexander, other members of the HELP Committee, and witnesses talked about the need to make the FAFSA work better for low-income students, students dealing homelessness, and similar situations. Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) noted the profound effect of the pandemic on students’ and parents’ ability to pay for college. Although the hearing focused on a bill from Chairman Alexander and Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) (S.2667 - FAFSA Simplification Act of 2019), members and witnesses spoke broadly on how interventions to simplify the FAFSA have shown positive effects on persistence and attainment. Witnesses also testified on improvement of need analysis calculations; the importance of bolstering aid available to students; the value of simplifying Pell eligibility, especially for those receiving means-tested benefits; and improvements to the verification process. Given that another Congress will likely end without a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), it is unlikely that any FAFSA legislation will pass before the end of the year.
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced its final rule addressing institutional compliance with the First Amendment, public institution relationships with faith-based student organizations, and religious institutions’ rules regarding implementation of Title IX. The rule is in part a follow-up to previous executive orders issued by President Trump, in particular the 2019 "Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities" that stressed institutional compliance with the First Amendment as a material condition for receiving research and education grants. Whereas the executive order calls for most federal research agencies to ensure First Amendment compliance by institutional grantees, this rule only applies as a condition for ED program grants and does not apply to student aid funding.
The final rule, which goes into effect on November 23, 2020, will
- require public institutions to comply with the First Amendment as a condition of receiving ED grants or subgrants;
- require private institutions to comply with their stated policies related to freedom of speech and academic freedom as a condition of receiving ED grants or subgrants;
- disallow public institutions to deny faith-based student organizations “the rights, benefits, or privileges that are otherwise afforded to non-faith-based student organizations,” as a condition of receiving ED grants or subgrants;
- define a list of criteria for educational institutions to demonstrate religious organization control and set exemptions to the application and implementation of Title IX for those institutions; and
- amend regulations in the department’s minority-serving institution programs by narrowing the scope of current limitations on allowable activities related to religious worship or theological studies, to align with the First Amendment.
In terms of ensuring religious freedoms for institutions and individuals, ED has subsequently released additional guidance addressing compliance and outlining a process to file related complaints. A fact sheet on the final rule is available here.