Former Vice President Joe Biden unveiled a broad K-12 education plan Tuesday that calls for tripling Title I money to pay for teacher salary increases and student supports, his first major policy announcement in his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Biden’s plan also calls for support for universal prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds; a reinstatement of Obama administration policies designed to spark local school desegregation efforts; a doubling of support staff like counselors and school nurses; and full federal funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act within 10 years.
The long-time politician, a former U.S. Senator from Delaware who has a history with many education-related issues, released his proposals shortly before speaking to Houston educators at a town hall with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
“You are expected to be a social worker, you’re expected to be a counselor ... You’re expected to be the person of last resort,” he told the teachers.
Biden’s plan notably doesn’t mention reining in charter schools, which served as a centerpiece of proposals recently unveiled by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is viewed by many as one of Biden’s strongest competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination. Asked by an audience member what he would do about “unregulated, for-profit charter schools,” Biden said he does “not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools. Period.”
Asked if it would be possible to carry out his plans if the Senate remains under Republican control, Biden said he believes some GOP lawmakers would agree to eliminate some tax loopholes to help pay for the proposal.
“Enough Republicans with enough Democrats being re-elected are going to join in doing what they know in their gut is the right thing,” he said.
But that’s a big statement of faith. Even a Democratically controlled House faces an uphill climb to raise education funding.
Here’s what Biden wants to do with education:
Boosts in Title I, Teacher Pay
Like Sanders, Biden pledged to triple Title I aid for low-income schools to more than $45 billion.
Biden would address teacher pay, a popular issue on the campaign trail, by tying some strings to that Title I funding. His plan would “require districts to use these funds to offer educators competitive salaries and make other critical investments prior to directing the funds to other purposes.” It does not define what salary is considered competitive, and it does not provide details of any regulations or legal changes that could be required to enact those conditions.
The plan, which praises teacher walk-outs across the country last year, cites research that found public school teachers made 21.4 percent less than workers with similar education and experience in 2018.
It promises that a Biden administration would make sure the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, used to repay teachers’ student loans, is “fixed, simplified, and actually helps teachers,” but it does not provide details about how it would do so.
Title I funding would also be used to help expand prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year olds. The plan also says the administration will “work with states” to offer universal prekindergarten programs. And Biden pledged to expand home-visiting programs for young children under the Affordable Care Act.
“This investment will ease the burden on our families, help close the achievement gap, promote the labor participation of parents who want to work, and lift our critical early-childhood education workforce out of poverty,” the plan says.
The plan does outline how Biden would pay for a proposed “unprecedented investment” to double the number of “psychologists, guidance counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in our schools,” saying only that his administration would work with colleges to “expand the pipeline” to these professions.
The Title I boost would help ease some of the funding discrepancies between low-income and well-resourced schools, Biden told his Houston audience, and it would help provide access to more-rigorous science and math coursework at affected schools.
Biden’s proposals call to boost racial diversity in schools through grants to encourage local desegregation efforts and the support of Obama-era civil rights guidance on voluntary integration efforts. Biden has been criticized for his 1970s criticisms of busing for school desegregation.
His plan calls for increasing the number of teachers of color by working with historically black colleges and universities and supporting paraprofessionals in obtaining teaching certificates, but it does not outline specific programs to support this work.
Guns in Schools
Biden—a key author of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 and the leader of the Obama administration’s response to the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.—included in his education plan a pledge to “defeat the National Rifle Association—again—to make our schools safer,” starting with support for a ban on “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines.
Other plans include:
• The inclusion of school facilities funding in a federal infrastructure bill
• Increased federal support for community schools
• Allowing high school students to use Pell grants for dual-enrollment programs
• Supporting an expansion of career and technical education through partnerships between schools, community colleges, and employers
• A competitive program to encourage communities to redesign high schools to support changing workforce needs, targeted first at low-income communities
Democratic candidates seeking to distinguish themselves from a crowded field are seeking the support of the nation’s teachers unions, which offer powerful endorsements. Both the AFT and the National Education Association offered praise for Biden’s plan Tuesday.
“What is becoming increasingly clear in light of Biden’s and other recent education proposals is that, as the eyes of the nation turn to the 2020 presidential campaign, the country is hungry to elect a president who will not only do what is in the best interest of public education but also ensure that students have the schools they deserve,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement.
Weingarten acknowledged to the Houston audience Tuesday that the AFT hadn’t always agreed with the education plans of the Obama administration. (The union often sparred with the Education Department over issues like testing and accountability). But she said Biden had been a reliable point person in the White House who had always listened to her concerns. “And we trusted that message would get through,” Weingarten said.
Photo: Former Vice President Joe Biden talks with supporters during a campaign rally for Pennsylvania Democratic candidates for Congress last year. (Butch Comegys/The Times-Tribune via AP)