Additional federal aid is necessary to reopen schools and ensure economic recovery, former Vice President Joe Biden told teachers Thursday, slamming a COVID-19 relief bill proposed by Senate Republicans.
In remarks to the American Federation of Teachers virtual convention, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee warned that, without federal funding, struggling state and local governments may be forced to eliminate public sector positions, including teaching jobs, putting the country’s ability to rebound after the COVID-19 pandemic at risk.
“When you shut down a fire station, somebody is going to die in that neighborhood if there is a fire...” Biden said, speaking remotely the day after the union’s delegates formally voted to endorse his presidential candidacy. “When you lay off so many educators, janitors, and bus drivers, you not only cause them a great difficulty, but you slow the economy even further. It’s in the economic interest of this country to have these jobs maintained.”
Biden spoke days after Senate Republicans revealed their coronavirus bill, which he called “completely out of touch.” That bill, the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act, would provide $5 billion in funds for governors to use on K-12 and higher education and $70 billion for K-12 public and private schools, tying two thirds of that aid to physical reopening plans.
The bill would not provide any aid to shore up the budgets of state and local governments, which have been hard hit by revenue losses. Teachers’ unions have warned that such funding is necessary to preserve school programs and teacher jobs.
“It’s meager support,” Biden said. “What they are putting forward for schools and districts is much less than what’s needed.”
Biden spoke in support of a bill passed by House Democrats in May. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES Act, would create a $90 billion “state fiscal stabilization fund” for the U.S. Department of Education to support K-12 and higher education. About 65 percent of that fund—or roughly $58 billion—would go through states to local school districts. The bill would also provide $1 billion in aid to state and local governments.
Biden touted his work as vice president overseeing spending under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which directed $115 billion to education in the wake the last recession. That funding helped prevent an estimated 400,000 layoffs in education, Biden said Thursday.
To be sure, schools still saw job losses following the 2008 recession, and some said the funding Congress provided then wasn’t enough to fully shield them from its consequences.
Biden criticized Republicans for seeking to use their COVID-19 relief bill as “a cudgel” to force schools to reopen their buildings, a priority for President Donald Trump. Biden’s plan to reopen schools calls for a federal “COVID-19 Educational Equity Gap Challenge Grant” program to help state and local governments develop solutions to support students affected by school closures.
He also called for clearer federal guidelines for school reopenings with more details on issues like when it’s safe to return to buildings, what should cause them to close again, and who should return to classrooms first.
Trump has deferred to state and local leaders on such questions. But some leaders have said guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not concrete enough to guide their decision-making.
“We saw this challenge coming,” Biden said of the coronavirus. “We’ve been calling for the president to address this as early as January. ...Every single opportunity, he’s missed the chance or taken us in a different direction.”
A Call for Equity
Biden’s remarks turned emotional when a Black classroom assistant from Philadelphia asked him about racial equity.
Marguerite Ruff, who works with students in special education programs, said she recalled the death of her own son when she heard about the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of police.
“In the middle of the pandemic, we took to the streets not only for George Floyd but for all who preceded him. Enough,” Ruff said, asking Biden what he would do to support equity in public policy and in education.
Biden, who spoke of the deaths of two of his own children, said the country may be approaching a historical moment of positive change as it rebuilds from the pandemic.
“This is one of those inflection points where the American people are finally saying, ‘oh my God. I didn’t realize how bad it was,’” Biden said.
He outlined a range of policy proposals, including his pledge to triple federal Title I grants, which help schools educate children from low-income households, and to “fully fund” the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Additional funding will help schools recruit and retain teachers through higher pay, he said. He said his administration would improve the public service loan forgiveness program, expand dual-enrollment programs, and enact policies to recruit more teachers of color.
Good policy related to issues like education, transportation, and infrastructure are not only good for the economy, Biden said, they are also inherently tied to equity.
“Look at all of the schools in America today, where you’re not sure if you can turn on that water fountain and drink it,” he said, perhaps referring to cities like Flint, Michigan, where deteriorating infrastructure created a lead crisis that made city water unsafe.
Photo: American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks with former Vice President Joe Biden on a livestream of the union’s national convention Thursday.