President-elect Joe Biden plans to pursue an ambitious agenda for K-12 education that will depend on cooperation from Congress and his administration’s ability to address the ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic on students and schools.
The former Democratic vice president, whose victory was called by the Associated Press Saturday morning after a close election and days of vote-counting in multiple states, has promised a sharp U-turn from the education philosophy and policies of his competitor, Republican President Donald Trump, in areas including the COVID-19 crisis, civil rights enforcement in schools, and aid for underprivileged students.
Biden pledged in his campaign to significantly boost federal education funding and to focus on “neighborhood public schools” rather than charter schools. And he ran on outspoken opposition to the efforts to use public funds to help children attend private schools that became a signature of his predecessor, who had yet to concede over the weekend and remained defiant about the results of the election.
Where U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos frequently criticized teachers’ unions for blocking the “reinvention” she supported, Biden embraced them. He embedded their priorities—like criticism of “high stakes testing” and demands for more resources for schools—into his platform, pledged to appoint an education secretary with “public school experience,” and promised a “teacher-oriented” department of education.
“What happens to our children is going to determine exactly what happens to this nation,” Biden said in a July address to the National Education Association. “These aren’t someone else’s children, they’re our children. They’re the kite strings that lift our national ambitions aloft.”
Biden made history with his choice of a running mate. California Senator Kamala Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, will be the first woman and the first woman of color to serve as vice president. She notably challenged Biden on his record on school desegregation during the primaries, and she launched her own presidential bid on a plan to boost teacher pay.
His wife, former high school teacher and current community college professor Jill Biden, spoke frequently to education groups and delivered her convention address from her former classroom.
“For America’s educators, this is a great day: You’re going to have one of your own in the White House, and Jill is going to make a great First Lady,” Biden said in his acceptance speech Saturday night in Wilmington, Del., referring to himself as “Jill’s husband.”
Biden’s priorities were welcomed with praise from education groups that have pushed for more school funding, but they were also met with concern from some policy groups that said they fear he will de-emphasize accountability and school improvement efforts.
“Joe Biden is a person of great decency, strength, knowledge and compassion,” said a Saturday statement from Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which also represents nurses. “He will deliver on his promise to make things better for those who struggle and strive, those who educate our children and care for our patients and our communities.”
Confronting a Crisis
At least in the beginning of his presidency, Biden’s core education priorities will likely take a backseat to efforts to help public schools confront the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put them in the center of two unprecedented crises: a rapidly evolving public health situation, and a decline in the public funding they need to operate.
“Looking at the two candidates and seeing what has happened with education during the Trump administration, we are certainly more excited about the potential for a Biden presidency,” Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association said in the run-up to the vote. “Most immediately, he has promised to provide additional aid to school districts dealing with COVID, which is something that has not happened in this administration.”
The $2 trillion CARES Act, passed in March, provided $13.5 billion in dedicated relief funding for K-12 education through a stabilization fund and $3 billion for governors to use at their discretion to assist both K-12 and higher education.
Even before the ink was dry, education groups said they would likely need more money to reopen schools and to address the academic fallout caused by mass school closures in the spring.
Civil Rights: Would restore a federal directive that schools may be in violation of civil rights laws if they discipline students of color disproportionately, regardless of whether there is discriminatory intent. Would restore a directive intended to protect the rights of transgender students to access school restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.
Coronavirus: Has said educators need more emergency funding and clear federal guidelines on how to reopen schools during the pandemic. Has released a five-step roadmap for schools to reopen and stay open safely.
Desegregation: Democratic Party platform pledges to use the federal government to promote voluntary school desegregation efforts, such as magnet schools and transportation initiatives.
Education Funding: Has pledged to triple or “nearly triple” federal funding for students from low-income households and “fully fund” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act within 10 years.
Remote Learning: Campaign roadmap cited need to deliver “high-quality remote and hybrid learning with a special emphasis on students with disabilities, English-language learners, and students who do not have access to specific technology, such as broadband and devices.”
School Choice: Opposes charter schools operated by for-profit entities and has said charters “siphon off” money from public schools, while also saying some charters do work.
School Safety: As a U.S. senator, worked on the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, but was a strong supporter of police in schools. As vice president, led the Obama administration’s response to the 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Conn., that included a push for more money for counselors, mental health resources, and school resource officers.
Secretary of Education: Has pledged to nominate an educator for education secretary, which would not preclude him from nominating someone with a background in higher education.
Student Testing: Has said he opposes mandatory standardized tests and that tests take too much autonomy away from what teachers do in their classrooms.
Teacher Pay: Has said a major reason to increase federal education funding is to raise teacher pay. Has put focus on boosting the salaries of teachers who work in schools with large shares of disadvantaged students.
Congressional Democrats and the Trump White House have tried and failed to iron out the specifics on an additional relief bill, even as they both agreed one is necessary.
Biden has voiced support for the HEROES Act, a bill that passed the Democratically controlled House in the spring but was never considered by the GOP-controlled Senate. Depending on what happens in the lame duck period, the contours of any relief bill Biden signs may be shaped by how the balance of power shifts in Congress following this week’s elections.
Even as votes were still being counted Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the GOP majority would try to pass a relief bill before the end of the year.
“Hopefully the partisan passions that prevented us from doing another rescue package will subside after the election,” he said in a news conference.
On the campaign trail, Biden criticized Trump’s efforts to tie additional relief aid to schools’ reopening plans, an idea that was included in several failed GOP bills.
“The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families,” Trump tweeted in July. “May cut off funding if not open!”
Since the start of the school year, some economists and epidemiologists have said data collected by nongovernmental groups has demonstrated that its possible for schools to open without increasing the spread of the virus in their communities. Other scientists have said more information is needed to draw that conclusion.
Where Trump has largely deferred to the states on virus containment efforts, Biden has pledged a more centralized response. His plan to reopen schools calls for “listening to the scientists” and having federal agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provide “basic, objective criteria to guide state, tribal, and local officials” in reopening decisions that are sensitive to the “level of risk and degree of viral spread in the community.”
School superintendents have faulted the Trump administration for inconsistent, vague, and sometimes delayed federal guidance they said left them more vulnerable to local political pressure in their decisions. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office had also faulted the Trump administration for a lack of “clear and consistent messaging” needed to help school leaders navigate the decision-making process.
“Everyone wants our schools to reopen,” Biden said when he introduced his plan in July. “The question is how to make it safe, how to make it stick. Forcing educators and students back into the classroom in areas where the infection rate is going up or remaining very high is just plain dangerous.”
Big Education Funding Boost
Long before the pandemic, Biden’s education funding promises dwarfed even the most significant proposals by congressional Democrats in recent years.
“If there was ever going to be a time for a president who focused on education funding, this would be the time,” said Sarah Abernathy, the deputy executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, which advocates for more federal spending on education.
School closures and remote learning have shined a spotlight on many inequities that were already present before the pandemic, she said, and there may be more popular understanding of schools’ needs as a result. CEF highlights that federal education spending has not kept pace with inflation in recent years.
Biden’s plans would rely heavily on a cooperative Congress. He’s said he would raise taxes on incomes above $400,000 and close some tax loopholes to help pay for his domestic policy goals. But big plans in other areas, like health care, may suck up some political oxygen.
Biden wants to triple Title I, the federal aid for schools that educate high percentages of students from low-income families, from around $16 billion to more than $45 billion. By comparison, the U.S. Department of Education’s discretionary budget is about $72.3 billion.
Biden would require districts to use the new Title I funds “to offer educators competitive salaries and make other critical investments,” like expanding early-childhood programs and access to advanced coursework, before spending it elsewhere.
He has promised to “fully fund” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s special education law, within 10 years.
When Congress passed IDEA in 1975, it gave itself permission to send to states up to 40 percent of the “average per pupil expenditure” to meet the goals of the law. But, in reality, spending falls far short of that. The federal contribution to special education is now about $13 billion, around 15 percent of the per-pupil amount.
Advocates for special education students say their families have long struggled to ensure an adequate education in resource-strapped schools. Those challenges have become a four-alarm fire during the pandemic, when therapies and services have been interrupted alongside in-person schooling, they’ve said.
The pandemic has also exposed long-unmet facilities needs for schools, administrators say. In some cases, antiquated ventilation systems have threatened reopening plans.
Biden mentioned that issue frequently during the campaign, and he promised to include schools in a broader $2 trillion infrastructure plan.
It may be difficult to accomplish all, or even one, of these goals, Domenech acknowledged.
“Whether it’s doable now, that’s going to be a heavy lift,” he said. “But the fact that there is someone willing to attempt to make that lift, is a step in the right direction.”
If he’s short of congressional support, Biden can still accomplish many goals “with a phone and a pen,” David DeSchryver, the senior vice president of White Board Advisors, wrote in Education Next.
“If the last 12 years have taught us anything, it’s that a president wields significant power through executive orders and regulatory action that do not require congressional consent,” he wrote.
DeVos criticized her predecessors in the Obama administration for what she deemed an overreliance on “Dear Colleague” letters and agency regulations to accomplish policy goals. She reversed or revised Obama-era guidance on the rights of transgender students in schools, racial discrimination in school discipline, and sexual assault and harassment at schools, colleges, and universities.
Biden has said he will reinstate those directives. And he’s suggested he would have a more aggressive approach to education civil rights enforcement. He’s also proposed reinstating guidance on voluntary school integration efforts and providing federal grants to support that work.
Biden’s administration will work to quickly staff up the Education Department’s office for civil rights, Stef Feldman, Biden’s policy director, said during an October webinar hosted by the Education Writer’s Association.
Among Biden’s biggest and earliest actions will be nominating a new U.S. secretary of education.
He’s sought to draw a contrast with DeVos, a wealthy Republican political donor with no teaching experience, by promising to appoint someone who has taught in public education.
Teacher supporters have widely assumed that would be a public K-12 teacher, but Feldman left the door open to an appointee with a higher education background.
“The vice president [Biden] hasn’t gone beyond saying it will be a person with public school experience, so I will leave it at that,” she said.
DeVos was a popular target for Democratic candidates during the primary, largely for her efforts to promote tax-credit scholarships and vouchers that allow students to use public funds to attend private schools.
And while Biden has slammed those efforts, supporters of private school choice, like the Center for Education Reform, said the conversations started under Trump will likely continue well into Biden’s tenure.
“Whatever happens, the education freedom train left the station a long time ago, and no one can stop it,” the organization’s CEO Jeanne Allen tweeted the week before the election. “Those on the train may need to be louder and be more vigilant. But it’s not turning around anytime soon.”
While Biden has stressed his differences from Trump on education, some education policy wonks who favor rigorous accountability measures have lamented his differences from his former governing partner, President Barack Obama.
Obama’s administration piloted controversial school-improvement and teacher innovation strategies, and it encouraged states to lift caps on charter schools and to adopt “college- and career-ready standards” like the common core.
By contrast, Biden has criticized “high-stakes testing,” called for new limits on federal support of charter schools, and emphasized funding over new forms of accountability.
Some supporters of charters said DeVos, who has been a divisive figure for the general public, may have actually drawn more political heat to the sector, and to federal education policy in general. Biden’s win “could help us get back to bipartisan reform again,” Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute said in the runup to the election.
“He’s a smart politician. He’s a coalition guy,” Petrilli said. “Yes, he definitely doesn’t want to cross the unions. But he also doesn’t want to cross his African-American base. And they really like charter schools. I am hoping that what he would do is focus on keeping his coalition together. The way to do that is to spend a lot of money on schools.”
Democrats for Education Reform, which supports charter schools, endorsed Biden, but the group’s president, Shavar Jeffries, has said it will need “to push him” on some issues, like accountability and innovation.
“If we only talk about the money side of the equation, that’s not enough by itself,” Jeffries told Education Week in August, when Democrats unveiled a platform with language critical of charter schools. “That’s where we need our president to be a leader and hold those institutions accountable.”
Assistant Editor Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this article.
An alternative version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2020 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as What to Watch as Biden Administration Charts Its Own Path on Education Policy