Photo: Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
First grade students put their arms out to ensure distancing during Freedom School, a summer academic enrichment program for Marin County students held at Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in Marin City.

Schools emerged as a key issue on the presidential campaign trail — but not in the way anyone could have predicted a year ago.

President Trump made the question of schools reopening for face-to-face instruction during the pandemic a key campaign issue. Over the past several months, he has argued, without any basis, that Democrats want to keep schools closed “for political reasons,” to use against him as an election issue. He even threatened to “cut off” aid to schools that don’t open, even though he couldn’t do that without congressional approval.

He continued to opine on the issue until the very end of the campaign. On Sunday in a speech in North Carolina, for example, he said schools should reopen because young people have healthy immune systems. As proof, he pointed to Barron, his 14-year-old son, who tested positive for the virus and recovered.

But what has been shunted aside are what the candidates promised should they be elected president. Beyond the impact of the pandemic on schools, there has been virtually no discussion on the campaign trail about substantive education issues. They were barely mentioned in the two debates between the candidates.

That may be understandable given that education systems at all levels have been completely upended by the pandemic, making discussion of long-term reforms more difficult, if not impossible. However, the neglect has obscured the fact that former Vice President Joe Biden is offering one of the most detailed education platforms of any candidate in memory — perhaps even the most detailed.

Certainly, education has figured prominently in most recent presidential campaigns. When he ran in 1988, George H.W. Bush aspired to be an “education president.” Bill Clinton was also closely identified with major education reforms at the time he ran for president. In his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush visited 100 schools, talking repeatedly about the “bigotry of low expectations,” while Al Gore’s platform envisaged an expansive federal role in education.

In Trump’s case, he is promising very little — and almost nothing beyond his 2016 “school choice” education platform, this time with even fewer details.

In fact, his second term agenda contains just two items, reprinted in full here. Both were offered without any explanation:

  • Provide School Choice to Every Child in America
  • Teach American Exceptionalism

His school choice agenda, and that of his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is by now well-known — and one that Trump made no significant headway in promoting during his four years in office. He has backed a range of plans that in some form or another attempt to funnel federal funds to underwrite tuition at private or religious schools, as well as support charter schools.

As for “American exceptionalism,” the issue is a relatively new one for Trump, and appears to be a reaction to Republican derision about efforts to view U.S. history in a new light, along with a drive to rename schools and remove monuments that honor historical figures associated in some way with racist practices and views.

Harshly criticized by conservatives is the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which argues for tracing the beginning of the nation to the arrival of the first slaves to the United States. It has now been turned into a school curriculum that can be taught in classrooms.

The conservative Heritage Foundation has been leading the effort to come up with a curriculum devoted to “American exceptionalism,” as an antidote to what it believes is taught today in U.S. schools. 

“Young people lose heart early on,” the foundation wrote in promoting a webinar on the topic in March. “Trapped in government-run schools, they learn that America is a nation of imperialism, greed and racism. Rarely do they hear the truth: that America is the freest, most prosperous nation on Earth — the only nation founded on the concept of human liberty.”

Biden, by contrast, has outlined an extraordinarily lengthy, and pro-teacher, education platform. The fact that Jill Biden, his wife, is a former high school teacher and community college instructor has no doubt helped inform his views on education.

What received some attention during the early part of his campaign was his proposal to dramatically increase federal funds for schools, including tripling Title 1 funds for schools serving large numbers of low-income students.

But he has made a myriad other proposals since then, including:

  • Increasing funding for teacher mentoring, leadership and professional development. The funds would also be used to help teachers earn additional certification in high demand areas, such as special education or bilingual education.
  • Helping teachers reduce their own student loan obligations by strengthening the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
  • Doubling the number of psychologists, counselors nurses and social workers in our nation’s schools.
  • Increasing the number of students in community schools — those that offer a range of services to children and their families, not just educational ones — by another 300,000 students and families.
  • Providing “full funding” for special education, compared to the 14% the federal government currently provides.

As for early education, as part of a massive $775 billion proposal for supporting caregivers at all levels, he is proposing:

  • Providing all 3- and 4-year-olds with access to high-quality preschool.
  • Offering tax credits of $8000 per child (and $16,000 for two or more children) for low- and middle-income families to pay for child care.
  • Expanding after-school, weekend and summer child care.
  • Increasing support for child care and other “wraparound” services at community colleges to help parents seeking to improve their skills.
  • Creating a new child care construction tax credit to encourage businesses to build child care facilities at places of work.

On the higher education front, Biden wants to make attending public universities and historically black colleges and universities tuition-free for families earning under $125,000 a year. That’s in addition to making community colleges tuition-free for everyone. He wants to cancel up to $10,000 in student debts.

Of course, it is unclear how Biden would translate this wish list into actual programs, especially if the Senate remains in Republican hands. Often, his pledges are stated as if he could make good on them on his own, without Congress.

In almost every case, he could not — something that Biden, who was in the Senate for nearly six terms, obviously knows better than most.

The fact that his proposals got so little attention during the campaign reflects the extent to which this race became one almost exclusively about Donald Trump, and the lost opportunity to discuss issues that affect every American.

One positive outcome of the pandemic is that it has dramatically affirmed the importance of teachers and schools in general, not only for children’s education, but for their overall physical and mental health. It has also underscored that many parents are not cut out to be teachers, and that schools are essential not only for the economic and emotional well-being of students, but of their parents as well.

That affirmation of the central role of schooling will be something to build on in the coming months. But anyone who cares about the central importance of education in shaping the nation’s future will have the opportunity to hold Biden to the pledges he has made — depending of course on what happens on Nov. 3.

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  1. Brenda Lebsack 3 months ago3 months ago

    As a public school teacher of over 25 years and a former school board member, though I did not vote for Trump in 2016, my mind has definitely changed these past four years since experiencing the inside works of Calif educational politics. I now believe school choice is the most equitable solution and is in the best interest of California students and families. The "elites" and unions have monopolized education and are now … Read More

    As a public school teacher of over 25 years and a former school board member, though I did not vote for Trump in 2016, my mind has definitely changed these past four years since experiencing the inside works of Calif educational politics.

    I now believe school choice is the most equitable solution and is in the best interest of California students and families. The “elites” and unions have monopolized education and are now forcing ideologies on people that assault many of their cultural and familial values. We are in desperate need of reform. Here’s one reason why: https://libertysentinel.org/in-a-nutshell-ethnic-studies-madness-hits-california

  2. James Lynett 3 months ago3 months ago

    The real malarkey and I should use a stronger term is the use of public funds for public schools as a profit center. If people choose private schools great but don’t you dare use my hard earned tax dollars to support your private agenda whether that be religious or otherwise. I wonder how supportive they would be of giving tax dollars to Saudi created Muslim schools? If Biden does only one thing it … Read More

    The real malarkey and I should use a stronger term is the use of public funds for public schools as a profit center. If people choose private schools great but don’t you dare use my hard earned tax dollars to support your private agenda whether that be religious or otherwise. I wonder how supportive they would be of giving tax dollars to Saudi created Muslim schools? If Biden does only one thing it should be to cement the notion of the separation of church and state.

  3. Jim 3 months ago3 months ago

    What a bunch of malarkey. Note that the the governor of California is sending his kids to a private school where they are back in person. Of course Newsom is also “teacher friendly” so his constituents kids are education deprived.