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Biden Pitches Plan to Expand Universal Pre-K, Free School Meal Programs, Teacher Training

By Evie Blad — April 28, 2021 8 min read
President Joe Biden addresses Congress from the House chamber. Behind him are Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
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On the eve of his 100th day in office, President Joe Biden proposed an ambitious $1.8 trillion American Families Plan that would expand universal prekindergarten access, make it easier for high-poverty schools to serve free meals, and fund programs to train and support teachers.

The package served as the centerpiece of Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday evening, in which he also addressed his administration’s progress in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and reopening schools. It faces strong political headwinds as Congress considers other costly proposals from the administration.

“We can’t be so busy competing with each other that we forget the competition is with the rest of the world to win the 21st Century,” Biden said in his address. “To win that competition for the future, we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families – in our children.”

Biden pitched the plan as adding four additional years of free education—two in early childhood and two years of community college— to the existing public education system.

“When this nation made 12 years of public education universal in the last century, it made us the best-educated and best-prepared nation in the world,” Biden said. “But the world is catching up. They are not waiting. Twelve years is no longer enough today to compete in the 21st Century.”

Expanding access to early education could boost many young children’s later chances of later graduating from high school and going to college, Biden said.

The plan follows the recent introduction of a $2 trillion infrastructure package that would provide $100 billion for school facilities construction and upgrades, among other things.

The two proposals would help fulfill Biden’s campaign promises to surge new funds to K-12 education and child-care programs. The new calls for big federal spending packages are in addition to enactment of the American Rescue Plan, which provided nearly $130 billion in COVID-19 relief aid to K-12 schools.

Among other things, the American Families Plan Biden proposed Wednesday would:

  • Provide $200 billion for “universal, high quality” preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds. That proposal would rely on partnerships with states, and would call for minimum employee pay of $15 per hour and “high-quality and developmentally appropriate curriculum.”
  • Provide $109 billion to pay for two years of free community college for all Americans, including undocumented immigrant students protected through the DREAM Act. The plan would also expand the maximum Pell Grant for low-income college students by $1,400.
  • Provide $9 billion to “train, equip and diversify American teachers” through expanded federal scholarships for would-be educators, “grow-your-own” programs that help paraprofessionals become full-time teachers, and teacher residency and leadership programs. The plan would also provide federal funds to help existing teachers earn additional credentials in high-demand subject areas.
  • Provide $45 billion to expand nutrition programs. That would include allowing more schools to participate in the existing Community Eligibility Program, which allows schools in low-income areas to serve universal free meals without individually qualifying students. Under existing rules, 40 percent of a school’s students must qualify for existing federal programs, like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, to participate in community eligibility. In elementary schools, the new families plan would lower that threshold to 25 percent. It would also expand reimbursement rates to encourage more schools to participate.
  • Extend expanded child tax credits that were temporarily created through the American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief bill.

Biden’s families package faces a tricky political path to passage

The latest proposal won praise from advocates for children experiencing poverty and from education groups Wednesday.

The proposal “will not only make sure that the wealthiest few and corporations contribute their fair share but, most importantly, make sure that students, families, and communities have the resources they need to thrive,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a statement.

But taken together, the families and infrastructure plans face big hurdles in passing a deeply divided Senate where Democrats do not hold a filibuster-proof majority and where Republicans have criticized calls for additional federal spending.

In a web post Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called on Democrats to commit to “fostering consensus instead of deepening our divides.” Others said the tax changes necessary to finance Biden’s plan were nonstarters.

In the official Republican response, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott called the families plan “even more taxing, even more spending, to put Washington even more in the middle of your life — from the cradle, to college.”

“The beauty of the American Dream is that families get to define it for themselves,” he said.

President Barack Obama also pitched a preschool expansion in his 2013 State of the Union address. His plan, which saw no traction in Congress, called for incentives and support for states that wanted to substantially grow their early-childhood education offerings to expand access for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. And it would have enticed states to offer full-day kindergarten, which is not universally available.

Education plans that require state cooperation are also politically tricky because federal requirements for participation, like heightened program standards and increased teacher pay, are not always palatable to state leaders who are resistant to federal intervention.

Another potential sticking point: finding the 60 Senate votes needed to bring the plan to a vote under current rules. Democratic leaders may seek to pass it through budget reconciliation, a process that requires a simple majority.

And details of Biden’s proposals are subject to change as he negotiates with lawmakers to win support for resulting legislation.

Cheering progress on school reopenings

In touting his success on the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden stopped short of declaring victory on his self-imposed goal of seeing a majority of the nation’s K-8 schools open for in-person learning within the first 100 days of his administration. He referenced the goal indirectly by mentioning one of his key efforts, prioritizing educators and school employees as early vaccine recipients.

Each shot is “a dose of hope,” he said, quoting a nurse he met at a vaccination center.

“A dose of hope for the educator in Florida who has a child who suffers from an auto-immune disease. She wrote to me that she was worried about bringing the virus home,” Biden said. “When she got vaccinated, she sat in her car and just cried. Cried out of joy, cried out of relief.”

See Also

First Lady Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona tour Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, in Meriden, Ct., on March 3, 2021.
First lady Jill Biden and U.S. Secretary of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona tour Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, in Meriden, Ct., in March.
Mandel Ngan/AP

Because of those vaccines, parents “are seeing smiles on their kids’ faces as they go back to school,” he said.

The White House revised the specifics of the reopening goal several times after Biden first stated it as president-elect.

The most recent federal data, compiled from a nationally representative sample of schools surveyed in February, show that 46 percent of schools offered a full, in-person school week to all students at the time. Thirty-six percent of schools surveyed offered a hybrid of in-person and remote learning days. Schools in the survey included those with at least a 4th- or 8th-grade class.

Data collected from various sources show that, while Biden may have met his goal, many students are still learning remotely. And Black and Latino students are more likely to learn from home, even if their schools have given them the option to attend in-person.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has said schools need to gain trust of families of color as they make plans to fully reopen and recover from pandemic disruptions.

In the Republican response, Scott lamented that “millions of kids have lost a year of learning when they could not afford to lose a day.”

“Locking vulnerable kids out of the classroom is locking adults out of their future,” Scott said. “Our public schools should have reopened months ago. Other countries’ did. Private and religious schools did.”

Scott called public school closures “the clearest case for school choice in our lifetimes.”

DREAMers, gun violence, and transgender students

In the rest of his remarks, Biden touched on themes of equity and justice that have driven much of his rhetoric on education and policy in general.

Biden called for “real equity” by passing his broad spending bills and measures like a police reform bill named for George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who was killed by a police officer last year, setting off racial justice demonstrations around the country.

He also addressed recent shootings, calling on Congress to pass bills that would expand background checks required for gun sales and ban so-called assault weapons. Several of Biden’s recent actions on guns would have consequences for students and their schools.

Biden also called on lawmakers to create permanent protections for DREAMers, undocumented people who were brought to America as children and were provided temporary protections by the Obama administration.

And he gave a special mention to transgender people.

Biden has made special efforts to deliberately extend civil rights protections to transgender students, even as states around the country consider new restrictions on their ability to play sports, use school restrooms that align with their gender identity, and access gender-affirming medical care.

The Education Department has launched a review of Title IX that will explore, among other things, how the civil rights law protects students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“To all the transgender Americans watching at home – especially the young people who are so brave – I want you to know that your president has your back,” Biden said.


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