President-elect Joe Biden’s expansive education agenda expected to draw greater scrutiny

November 7, 2020

Pro-union sign for Biden-Harris campaign in Oakland

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As education institutions — and young people’s lives — continue to be upended by the coronavirus pandemic, President-elect Joe Biden’s proposals will raise hopes for longer-term reforms of the nation’s schools and colleges.

Many Americans — including many educators — will no doubt be looking at Biden’s expansive and heavily pro-teacher platform for the first time.

That’s because beyond the impact of the pandemic on schools, there has been virtually no discussion, at least during the general election portion of the campaign, about substantive education reforms, like the crisis of college affordability and what must be done to close achievement gaps to ensure all students reach their full potential.

The stakes are especially high for California with over 10 million students of all ages enrolled in education institutions of some kind.

President Trump did succeed in making reopening schools for face-to-face instruction during the pandemic a key campaign issue. He asserted, without any basis, that Democrats want to keep schools closed “for political reasons,” to use against him as an election issue.

But shunted aside by the back-and-forth over school reopening was what the candidates were promising in terms of broader reforms.

In Trump’s case, he promised 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, offered without any explanation:

Biden, by contrast, put forward an extraordinarily lengthy, and pro-teacher, education platform. They were outlined in three separate documents: one focused on child care and preschool, another on K-12 schools, and a third on postsecondary challenges. The fact that Jill Biden, his wife, is a former high school teacher and community college instructor no doubt helped inform his views on education.

What received some attention early in the 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 made myriad other proposals, including:

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

Perhaps his most sweeping proposals are on the higher education front, with a heavy emphasis on community colleges. Among them are:

It’s unclear what impact Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris will have, if any, on a Biden administration’s education agenda. During her brief presidential campaign, she also put forward ambitious education proposals. The most notable among them was her proposal to close the “teacher pay gap,” which she defined as the difference between a teacher’s pay and that of those in other fields with comparable college degrees and experience. She envisaged trying to boost the average teacher’s pay over a decade by $13,500 a year.

A bigger question, of course, is whether Biden will be able to translate his wish list into actual programs, especially now that it seems almost certain that the Senate will remain Republican hands.

And as the pandemic continues to upend education, responding to it will almost certainly overshadow whatever else the Biden administration would like to do on education.  Most immediately, the incoming administration is planning to provide national guidance on school reopening, with more clarity and teeth than in current federal guidance, including focusing on dramatically upgrading schools’ testing and contact tracing capacity.

The biggest initial challenge of the new administration will be to see if it can work with Congress to come up with a major Covid relief package for schools that will address major needs such as improved ventilation, more nurses and counselors, and providing social emotional supports for students..

One positive outcome of the pandemic is that it has affirmed the importance of teachers and public schools in general. It has also demonstrated powerfully that many parents are not cut out to be teachers, and that public schools are essential not only for the economic and emotional well-being of students, but of their parents as well.  It has also laid bare the crucial contribution of schools to the functioning of the overall economy, by making it possible for parents and other caregivers to work.

That affirmation of the central role of schooling will be something the Biden administration could build on in the coming months. And anyone who cares about the central importance of education in shaping the nation’s future will have the opportunity to hold him to the pledges he has made.

This is an updated version of a report published on Nov. 3.   John Fensterwald contributed to this report. 

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