George W. Bush had No Child Left Behind, and Barack Obama had Race to the Top. But nearly three years into President Joe Biden’s tenure, the Democratic administration still hasn’t clearly defined its policy agenda for the nation’s K-12 schools.
Since Biden took office in January 2021, the U.S. Department of Education has provided K-12 schools nearly $122 billion—an unprecedented sum, and more than the federal government typically sends to the nation’s schools annually—to help catch students up from a pandemic-induced academic slide; passed stricter rules for charter schools seeking federal grant funding, awarded $1 billion to boost school safety and students’ mental health; and proposed an overhaul of Title IX that would give LGBTQ+ students explicit protection under the landmark sex discrimination law and bar outright bans on transgender youth who want to join athletic teams that align with their gender identity.
“The president gets the importance of education,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in an interview with Education Week. “There hasn’t been another president in our lifetime that has focused so much on providing dollars for education but also having education be central to the growth of this country.”
But not everyone sees it that way. Education policy observers and experts say those initiatives haven’t been enough to clearly define a Biden administration education policy agenda for the public, especially as student achievement in math and reading has hit its lowest levels in decades and Republicans at the state level pass expansive private school choice policies and laws restricting instruction about race, gender, and sexuality amid claims that schools are indoctrinating students.
There’s been no emphasis on a particular set of school improvements to accompany the tens of billions of dollars in new federal funding, for instance. And there’s been no aggressive policy agenda before Congress, whether to restructure the nation’s test-based school accountability system, boost teacher pay, or push schools to adopt evidence-based reading instruction.
Politically, a recent poll of battleground state voters showed that Republicans were now more trusted on education than Democrats, a reversal of traditional political fortunes.
As the 2024 election ramps up, it may be in the Biden administration’s best interest to focus more on K-12 schools and make clear what lasting impact the administration wants to leave on American classrooms, said Charles Barone, vice president of K-12 policy at Democrats for Education Reform, the national group that commissioned the July poll of voters in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Nevada.
“What’s not clear is, beyond [COVID relief], when it comes to K-12, what is it they really want to be their legacy?” Barone said.
Following in large footsteps
The Biden administration has spent some of its term at least partially rolling back guidance and policy decisions made by former President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who reversed Obama-era guidance that protected transgender students and students of color from discrimination, argued for school choice policies and cuts to education funding, and limited the definition of sexual harassment behavior, which critics say made it more difficult for victims to seek justice.
That has left the Education Department with a clean slate when it comes to education policy, but it hasn’t come forward with a focused agenda. So far, that has set Biden apart from two of his other predecessors: Bush and Obama.
Both of those presidents, one Republican and one Democrat, left office with a lasting impact on education, said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy think tank.
Bush’s legacy was the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which sought to close achievement gaps between poor and minority students and their peers by scaling up the federal government’s role in school accountability. It’s since been replaced by the Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act.
No Child Left Behind led to expanded standardized testing, and aggressive interventions at low-performing schools. The law has since come under criticism for setting unrealistic expectations for schools and creating incentives for them to reduce instructional time in social studies, art, and music in favor of the regularly tested math and reading. The federal government also never met the law’s promised funding levels.
Under Obama-era Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and with what was then an unprecedented amount of federal stimulus money, the Obama administration implemented Race to the Top, a $4 billion competitive grant program that rewarded states for embracing uniform, national standards, revamped data systems, dramatic school turnaround strategies, charter school,; and teacher evaluations based in part on student test scores. The competition effectively acted as a carrot for states to adopt the Obama administration’s policy agenda for schools.
Those decisions also faced criticism, especially from teachers’ unions, which argued that test-based performance evaluations were unfair and ineffective. It’s also difficult to determine whether the grant program has had a lasting impact on student achievement and state education policy, according to a 2016 report from the Institute for Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm. And some of the policies the program emphasized, such as test-based teacher evaluations, have notably lost momentum in recent years.
The Biden administration has avoided the muscular, expansive approaches favored by the Obama and Bush administrations.
The lack of a specific agenda is intentional, Cardona said.
“No Child Left Behind created labeling of schools and created a system where we were blaming underfunded schools for lack of student growth. While it was heavy on assessments, it was very weak on additional dollars to support schools,” Cardona said. “Race to the Top, while the goals were very specific, it didn’t hit the whole country. The last thing people in classrooms, in schools, need is somebody in D.C. telling them what we already know to be the truth, that if we’re going to get our students to continue to grow, we don’t need a silver bullet. What we need is support and funding in areas that we know work.”
Potentially, the administration’s major mark in education has been on higher education.
It has invested much of its political capital in student debt relief and attempts to counter the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year invalidating affirmative action in college admissions.
While people may debate the merits of the Bush- and Obama-era policies, it’s clear they had a lasting impact on schools, said Hess, who has praised parts of the Obama administration education agenda.
The last thing people in classrooms, in schools, need is somebody in D.C. telling them what we already know to be the truth, that if we're going to get our students to continue to grow, we don't need a silver bullet. What we need is support and funding in areas that we know work.
With the Biden administration, he said, “the primary agenda seems to be to spend more money, to make nice with the unions, and to launch the occasional grenade at charter schools,” Hess said.
The American Rescue Plan’s impact
If there is a K-12 legacy the Biden administration will leave, it is in the form of the American Rescue Plan. In total, the law provided $1.9 trillion to help small businesses, schools, medical centers, and individuals recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of that sum, $122 billion went directly to schools; the federal government by comparison sent about $60 billion to public schools during the 2019-20 school year, about 7.5 percent of total public school funding. Unlike the first two rounds of ESSER, which served as emergency funds to help schools function during the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of American Rescue Plan funding must be used to address student learning loss.
State education agencies and school districts have used the money for a swath of activities—from tutoring to teacher raises, HVAC updates to mental health. And through its Raise the Bar: Lead the World initiative, the Department of Education has outlined three broad strategies—achieving academic excellence through learning acceleration, improving learning conditions by combatting educator shortages and investing in student well-being, and creating pathways for “global engagement” through college and career programs and multilingual learning. Districts can use federal relief funding to pay for initiatives aligned with those strategies.
Cardona said he’s heard from school leaders across the country that the relief funds have helped them address worsening student achievement and chronic absenteeism. A group of district leaders recently told staffers on Capitol Hill that the money has led to strong results.
The choice to dispense the funds without attaching them to specific policy priorities was deliberate, Cardona said. The department wanted to support educators in continuing the work they’ve already done to help students, he said.
“I chose intentionally not to create a magic strategy that’s going to be something totally different,” Cardona said. “What I’m doing is putting investments in academic excellence, conditions for learning, and global competitiveness. I’m an educator. These are the things that we need to focus on.”
But there’s a fast-approaching deadline on the funds. Schools have until Sept. 30, 2024 to decide how they’ll spend the money, and the Education Department has little power to extend it, even as administrators call for more time. And, polling has shown that voters don’t feel like the money has made a difference.
In the July poll from Democrats for Education Reform, 30 percent of voters in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Nevada said they’ve noticed an improvement from the federal funds. Thirty-one percent of voters said schools are about the same, and 1 in 5 said they’ve gotten worse. (The remaining fifth of respondents were unsure.)
“We were in the middle of the pandemic, and the idea was to get money out there, and they didn’t know how much money would be needed to help schools cope,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education policy think tank. “But to the extent that a lot of that money has been used after the pandemic, there wasn’t a lot of thought about accountability for poor results around that.”
Cardona, on the other hand, urges his critics to imagine if schools hadn’t received the funding at all.
“Imagine the headline if the money didn’t go to schools,” he said. “How many teachers would have been eliminated? What would the class sizes be? How many students would not have been found because they didn’t have the adequate staffing? How many colleges would have closed down because they didn’t have the American Rescue Plan dollars?”
Calls for more urgency
While it has its share of critics, the Biden administration has powerful backers. Both major national teachers’ unions have called Biden the “most pro-public education” president in modern history and endorsed his reelection.
“We have allies in this fight, including the fight to pay educators more,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a July 21 speech in Washington before praising Cardona and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has pushed for a $60,000 minimum teacher salary bill in Congress. “And don’t forget President Joe Biden, who called on lawmakers to give public school teachers a raise during his State of the Union address.”
Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, a parent engagement advocacy organization, said Cardona and the Education Department have done a better job than past administrations connecting with and supporting underrepresented parents, especially those who don’t speak English.
Despite those plaudits, Americans’ faith in public schools overall has been slipping, with only 26 percent of Americans saying they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in public schools in a Gallup poll earlier this year. That was down from 32 percent in 2021.
Where could the administration put more emphasis? Observers suggested a softening of resistance to charter schools and school choice, prioritizing parent engagement with schools, and incentivizing states to adopt research-backed literacy curricula and teaching strategies.
“The Biden administration has missed an opportunity to really reclaim the Democratic Party’s mantle on public school choice, on accountability and innovation,” said Curtis Valentine, co-director of the Reinventing American Schools project at the Progressive Policy Institute, which advocates for expanding charter school options.
The administration’s tough messaging on book bans and culture-war topics—though limited action, given the federal government’s small influence over local school policies—also may be distracting from a focus on core instructional issues, like reading, Hess and Petrilli suggested.
Overall, parents, teachers, and students need to see the president show more urgency to help students succeed, Rodrigues said.
“What we need to see is really a renewed focus on getting every child in America literate,” Rodrigues said. “We’ve really been pushing them to start to step up around guaranteeing every child in America the right to read by 3rd grade and we’re encouraged by seeing some movement, but it’s not the urgency we’re looking for.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as The Biden Administration Still Hasn’t Defined Its K-12 Agenda. Why?