How a Biden White House Could Diverge From Obama on K-12

By Evie Blad — August 19, 2020 | Updated: August 20, 2020 10 min read
Former Vice President Joe Biden appears on video after receiving the delegate votes officially making him the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee at the party’s virtual convention.
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As he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden pledged that, if elected, his education department would be a sharp departure from that of President Donald Trump.

Rather than promoting private school choice, as the Republican incumbent has, Biden pledged to dramatically increase federal aid to schools, including ambitious calls to triple the Title I funding targeted at students from low-income households and to “fully fund” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But there also are signs that a future Biden administration wouldn’t return lock step to the education policies of President Barack Obama. And some of a Biden administration’s education policy goals could take a back seat to the pressing matter of helping schools navigate the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which may alter their operations and threaten their budgets for years to come.

“We’ll make sure our schools have the resources they need to be open, safe, and effective,” Biden said as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination Thursday night. In the same speech, Biden also said he would address “the daily fear of being gunned down in school.”

Though he’s campaigned heavily on his experience as Obama’s vice president, Biden has departed on some key issues from that self-described supporter of education reform. Obama’s education department championed rigorous state education standards, encouraged states to lift their caps on public charter schools to apply for big federal Race to the Top grants, and offered charter school conversions as an improvement strategy for struggling schools.

By contrast, Biden called for a scale-back of standardized testing at a 2019 MSNBC education forum, and he criticized their use in teacher evaluations, a key policy goal of the Obama administration. Under the leadership of Biden’s campaign, Democrats formally introduced a party platform this week that criticizes high-stakes testing and calls for new restrictions on charter schools.

How much Biden’s policy would depart from the last Democratic president’s is up for debate. But the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law Obama signed at the end of his last term, may offer levers to make some policy changes.

“Your job as a vice president is to toe the line of your boss,” said Julian Vasquez Heilig, the dean of the college of education at the University of Kentucky and a board member of the Network for Public Education, a progressive advocacy group. If Biden chooses, “he can be his own person on education.”

Praise and Concern

That suggestion of a new direction has won praise from groups like national teachers’ unions, which called for the resignation of Obama’s long-serving education secretary, Arne Duncan, when Duncan advanced a push for teacher evaluations and other reforms.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García called Biden and his running mate and one-time rival for the nomination, California Sen. Kamala Harris, a “dream team” that “respects educators and will listen to those who know the names of the kids in the classrooms.”

But Biden’s priorities, and the absence of discussions of school improvement during the Democratic primary, have also been met with concern from some education groups.

“If we only talk about the money side of the equation, that’s not enough by itself,” said Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform. “That’s where we need our president to be a leader and hold those institutions accountable.”

The organization, which supports charter schools and data-driven school accountability efforts, has praised Biden’s push for more resources, but it has sounded the alarm about other changes recommended in the party platform.

That platform language reflects some of Biden’s comments during the primaries. In recorded interviews with the NEA, for example, he said a lot of charter schools are “significantly underperforming” and that charter schools “cannot come at the expense of the public school.”

Neither Biden nor Harris included language on charters in their plans as candidates. But the platform language—created with input from a “unity task force” assembled by the campaigns of Biden and Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—calls for a ban on federal funding for “for-profit charter businesses.”

The language also calls for “conditioning federal funding for new, expanded charter schools or for charter school renewals on a district’s review of whether the charter will systematically underserve the neediest students,” which has alarmed charter advocates who say the publicly funded, independently managed schools already face sufficient accountability.

Charter schools are largely governed through state and local policy. But a presidential administration can help shape public debate on the issue. And a Biden administration could scale back support for charter schools in its discretionary grant priorities and regulations or in its proposed budgets.

A ‘Complete 180’?

A Biden administration wouldn’t necessarily be a “complete 180” from Obama’s in terms of education, said Scott Sargrad, the vice president for K-12 education at the Democratically leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund, who served in the Obama Education Department.

“I think it’s important to know that we are [nearly] 12 years after the start of the first Obama administration,” he said. “That’s a long time in education reform.”

There’s been “more clarity about some challenges” in the charter sector in recent years, he said, flagging concerns about funding and governance of some for-profit charter management organizations as an example.

In another key area, lawmakers rejected calls to do away with annual state testing when they drafted and passed the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. But the federal education law could give Biden tools to encourage changes to assessments.

“The evidence from nearly two decades of education reforms that hinge on standardized test scores shows clearly that high-stakes testing has not led to enough improvement in outcomes for students…” the new platform language says. “Democrats will work to end the use of such high-stakes tests and encourage states to develop reliable, continuous, evidence-based approaches to student assessment that rely on multiple and holistic measures that better represent student achievement.”

Biden’s Education Department could seek to expand and support ESSA’s innovative assessment pilot which allows up to seven states to experiment with new forms of student testing in a small number of districts, and eventually take them statewide if they are found to be effective. And he could work to provide additional support and funding for research on new forms of student assessment, Sargrad said.

Others have pushed to scale back the frequency of testing or of the use of test scores to evaluate teachers.

While Sargrad threw cold water on the idea of a possible massive shift in education priorities under a Biden administration, the University of Kentucky’s Vasquez Heilig praised the possibility.

“I think everyone believes in accountability,” he said. “But I think the kind of accountability that we need is community engaged and multiple measures.”

Jeffries, of DFER, said he would want a potential Biden administration to ensure that Black and Latino students, children from low-income neighborhoods, and families without access to high-performing traditional public schools are protected through presidential policies. That means continuing to collect test data that is reliable and allows parents to monitor how schools are serving historically disadvantaged groups, he said.

Civil Rights Enforcement

Perhaps the biggest return to Obama-era policies—and a big departure from the education priorities of President Donald Trump’s administration—would be Biden and Harris’s stated approach to student civil rights.

Biden has committed to reinstating Obama-era civil rights guidance that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has rescinded in recent years. That includes a controversial directive on school discipline that warned that schools may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if they discipline disproportionately high numbers of students of color, even if their policies were written without clear discriminatory intent.

Biden also wants to reinstate guidance on the rights of transgender students and to undo DeVos’ new rule on responding to sexual assault and harassment at K-12 schools, colleges, and universities.

In a 2019 debate, Harris, as a presidential candidate, notably challenged Biden over his outspoken support of anti-busing bills as a senator in the 1970s, raising the prominence of school integration concerns in the primaries. Biden and Harris have both called for grants to encourage voluntary local desegregation efforts and the reinstatement of Obama-era civil rights guidance on voluntary integration.

If elected, the pair could also focus on responding to civil rights complaints by examining data in search of systemic patterns of discrimination, rather than focusing merely on the incident in question. DeVos shifted case processing strategies early in the Trump administration, and she has touted her department’s record for investigating and resolving complaints more quickly as a result.

In response to school shootings, Biden has pushed for new gun laws, another priority that aligns with Obama’s. He was Obama’s point person after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The administration pushed for millions of dollars in funding for student mental health, school resource officers, and research. But proposed new gun laws, including changes to mandated background checks, failed to win congressional approval.

Speakers at the Democratic convention included Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jamie was killed in a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018. Guttenberg has said Biden called and comforted him in the immediate aftermath.

Navigating a Crisis

The newly minted Democratic ticket’s most prominent plans center on funding. Biden wants to expand federal support for wraparound student services, to allow schools to increase teacher pay, and to boost the availability of prekindergarten programs. And Harris campaigned on a plan to increase teacher salaries through a state-federal partnership.

But it may be difficult to turn those plans into a reality, especially if Congress remains split along partisan lines. Proposals to triple Title I would add more than $30 billion to the federal education budget, dwarfing proposals by Democrats in recent years to raise total funding by about $4 billion.

And whether Biden wins the election or Trump nets four more years, the next presidential term will draw a big parallel with Obama’s early years in office: a crisis that threatens public education.

Obama oversaw the country’s recovery from an economic recession, asking Biden to help oversee disbursement of $787 billion in stimulus funds, including $115 billion for education. Some education groups have said that even that infusion of federal cash wasn’t enough to cancel out the recession’s effects, and that some schools still haven’t returned to their previous staffing levels.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has created a dual economic and public health crisis that will continue to shape the work of the nation’s schools for years to come.

The CARES Act, signed into law by Trump in March, directed $13.5 billion to public schools. Negotiations have stalled in Congress over the next relief bill, even as governors warn of dramatic cuts to public programs and schools if they can’t shore up their suffering revenue. And, depending on how the crisis unfolds in the coming months, some have suggested the need for an additional relief package next year.

Despite all the wonky attention to the details of Biden’s education positions, his biggest mark on public schools may be helping them weather the crisis if he’s elected, education groups have said.

That’s a reality the Biden campaign touched on when the candidate’s wife, Jill Biden, spoke Tuesday night from the Delaware classroom where she once taught high school English.

“The rooms are dark as the bright young faces that should fill them are now confined to boxes on a computer screen,” Jill Biden said, echoing the campaign’s lament that many schools can’t reopen to in-person classes because Trump’s response to the pandemic was inadequate.

Biden has released a plan on school reopenings that calls for more specific federal guidance on issues like health, safety, and social distancing.

A Biden administration could also shape its response to the virus through the regulations his Education Department places on how new relief aid is spent—a change in tone from Trump’s emphasis on physically reopening school buildings amid continued public health precautions—or using the presidential soapbox to support more funding to rural broadband and school infrastructure.

“There ought to be a broad political consensus that the education implications of the pandemic are dramatically stark,” Jeffries said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as How a Biden White House Could Diverge From Obama on K-12 Policy


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