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Harris Calls for Boost in Education Funding, Trauma Screening, Civil Rights Enforcement

By Evie Blad — October 07, 2019 5 min read
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Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris gave the clearest look yet at her education priorities Monday when she released a set of policy proposals related to children that calls for expanding prekindergarten; boosting federal funding for educating children with disabilities, for high-poverty schools, and for school infrastructure; and providing mental health supports to students.

The California senator’s “children’s agenda” also calls for ramping up education civil rights enforcement, which has been a controversial issue under the Trump administration. And it reiterates her call for raising teacher pay, which has been her most substantial K-12 policy proposal to date.

“We must strive for a more equitable public education system that will lead to better school and life outcomes for all children,” Harris’ plan says.

Harris wants to boost federal education funding.

Like many of her competitors’ plans, parts of Harris’ plan include calls for a big increase in federal education funding, including fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Advocates for students with disabilities have long lamented that the federal legislation is funded well below authorized levels. When the IDEA, that law that governs special education and student accommodations, was passed in 1975, Congress gave itself permission to send to states up to 40 percent of the “average per pupil expenditure” to meet the goals of the law. In contrast, the federal contribution to special education is now less than 15 percent.

Like some of her competitors for the Democratic nomination, Harris promises a “significantly increasing Title I funding for districts serving students from low-income families,” but she provides few details about how she would carry that out or how much it would cost. (Former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have both proposed tripling Title I funding, to about $48 billion, and others have said they would expand it without providing specific figures). Unlike her competitors, Harris’ plan specifically says she would work to make the formula used to allot Title I dollars more equitable. That has been a big concern for some education groups, who say expanding Title I funds without addressing problems with the underlying formulas would worsen existing inequality.

Harris also wants to provide “incentives to states to conduct racial and resource equity audits, increase their public school spending, and adopt more equitable funding formulas.” That echoes proposals by some of her competitors, like Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who have both suggested working with states to address equity issues.

Harris’ plan also says she’d push for passage of the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, an existing bill that which would fund $70 billion in grants for school building and technology projects. Democrats have pushed to include schools in federal infrastructure proposals. Harris is a co-sponsor of the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, as are fellow Democratic presidential candidates Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, as well as Klobuchar and Sanders. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, also a candidate, is a co-sponsor of the House version of the bill.

Any plans to boost federal funding for schools would have to pass Congress. The Senate in particular has been less than receptive of such proposals in recent years, and the Trump administration has repeatedly proposed cuts to the U.S. Department of Education budget.

Plan pushes for equity and expanded civil rights enforcement.

Harris threw a spotlight on racial equity when she singled out Biden’s record on school segregation during the party’s first primary debate.

After that debate, her Senate office told Education Week supports the Strength in Diversity Act, which would provide federal grants for local school integration efforts. Several other candidates have co-sponsored that bill, and Harris reiterated her support in her children’s plan Monday.

She also pledged to expand civil rights enforcement by beefing up the office for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education (a pledge also made by other candidates), by reinstating Obama-era guidance on schools’ responsibility to address sexual assault and harassment under Title IX and to drive down disproportionately high rates of discipline for students of color. Harris also proposed federal money to states “to stop criminal charges for school-based disciplinary behavior,” the plan says.

The Obama administration was notably aggressive about civil rights enforcement in schools, issuing guidance on everything from the rights of transgender students to the education of incarcerated children. The Trump administration has rescinded several of those guidance documents, saying they were a federal overreach that limited state and local decision making. Under U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, civil rights investigators have also prioritized speedier resolution of civil rights complaints by amending rules that triggered systemic investigations that take more time.

What Harris’ plan says about early childhood and whole-child issues.

Harris’ plan pledges to expand federal Head Start funding so that all eligible families can participate in the early-education program for low-income children. The National Head Start Association says about 31 percent of eligible children currently get spots. (Candidates have made a variety of proposals for expanding early education, as you can see in Education Week’s 2020 issues tracker.) She calls for incentives for states to develop prekindergarten programs. Like Biden’s plan, hers also calls for expanded home-visiting programs for young children through Medicare.

Harris proposes federal grants to expand school-based mental health services, and she promises that all children will have access to a school nurse and social worker at school, though she provides few details about how she will accomplish that.

Her plan also calls expanding preventative health screenings provided through Medicaid so that every child can be tested for “toxic stress” and exposure to common traumatic situations, like the death of a parent or exposure to violence. Harris proposes expanding support for families with such trauma exposure and increased training for community, medical, and school personnel about trauma. (Read more about trauma and schools here.)

You can read the whole plan, including the non-education parts related to issues like paid family leave and child-care, here.

And check out Education Week’s interactive tracker to learn more about what 2020 presidential candidates think about key education issues.

Photo: California Sen. Kamala Harris Democratic speaks during the National Education Association’s forum for Democratic presidential candidates July 5 in Houston. --David J. Phillip/AP

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