As education institutions — and young people’s lives — continue to be upended by the coronavirus pandemic, President-elect Joe Biden’s proposals will raise hopes for longer-term reforms of the nation’s schools and colleges.
Many Americans — including many educators — will no doubt be looking at Biden’s expansive and heavily pro-teacher platform for the first time.
That’s because beyond the impact of the pandemic on schools, there has been virtually no discussion, at least during the general election portion of the campaign, about substantive education reforms, like the crisis of college affordability and what must be done to close achievement gaps to ensure all students reach their full potential.
The stakes are especially high for California with over 10 million students of all ages enrolled in education institutions of some kind.
President Donald Trump did succeed in making reopening schools for face-to-face instruction during the pandemic a key campaign issue. He asserted, without any basis, that Democrats want to keep schools closed “for political reasons,” to use against him as an election issue.
In Trump’s case, he promised almost nothing beyond his 2016 “school choice” education platform, this time with even fewer details. In fact, his second term agenda contains just two items, offered without any explanation:
- Provide School Choice to Every Child in America
- Teach American Exceptionalism
Biden, by contrast, put forward an extraordinarily lengthy, and pro-teacher, education platform. They were outlined in three separate documents: one focused on child care and preschool, another on K-12 schools, and a third on postsecondary challenges. The fact that Jill Biden, his wife, is a former high school teacher and community college instructor no doubt helped inform his views on education.
What received some attention early in the campaign was his proposal to dramatically increase federal funds for schools, including tripling Title 1 funds for schools serving large numbers of low-income students.
But he made myriad other proposals, including:
- Increasing funding for teacher mentoring, leadership and professional development. The funds would also be used to help teachers earn additional certification in high demand areas, such as special education or bilingual education.
- Helping teachers reduce their own student loan obligations by strengthening the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
- Doubling the number of psychologists, counselors nurses and social workers in our nation’s schools.
- Increasing the number of students in community schools — those that offer a range of services to children and their families, not just educational ones — by another 300,000 students and families.
- Providing “full funding” for special education, compared to the 14% the federal government currently provides.
As for early education, as part of a massive $775 billion proposal for supporting caregivers at all levels, he is proposing:
- Providing all 3- and 4-year-olds with access to high-quality preschool.
- Offering tax credits of $8000 per child (and $16,000 for two or more children) for low- and middle-income families to pay for child care.
- Expanding after-school, weekend and summer child care.
- Increasing support for child care and other “wraparound” services at community colleges to help parents seeking to improve their skills.
- Creating a new child care construction tax credit to encourage businesses to build child care facilities at places of work.
Perhaps his most sweeping proposals are on the higher education front, with a heavy emphasis on community colleges. Among them are:
- Making attending public universities and historically black colleges and universities tuition-free for families earning under $125,000 a year.
- Making community colleges tuition-free along with “high-quality training programs” free for everyone.
- Canceling up to $10,000 in student debt.
- Allowing Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid to be used for expenses beyond tuition and fees like housing and food.
- Investing $50 billion in workforce training through community college partnerships and apprenticeships.
It’s unclear what impact Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris will have, if any, on a Biden administration’s education agenda. During her brief presidential campaign, she also put forward ambitious education proposals. The most notable among them was her proposal to close the “teacher pay gap,” which she defined as the difference between a teacher’s pay and that of those in other fields with comparable college degrees and experience. She envisaged trying to boost the average teacher’s pay over a decade by $13,500 a year.
A bigger question, of course, is whether Biden will be able to translate his wish list into actual programs, especially now that it seems almost certain that the Senate will remain Republican hands.
And as the pandemic continues to upend education, responding to it will almost certainly overshadow whatever else the Biden administration would like to do on education. Most immediately, the incoming administration is planning to provide national guidance on school reopening, with more clarity and teeth than in current federal guidance, including focusing on dramatically upgrading schools’ testing and contact tracing capacity.
COVID relief for schools
The biggest initial challenge of the new administration will be to see if it can work with Congress to come up with a major COVID relief package for schools that will address major needs such as improved ventilation, more nurses and counselors, and providing social emotional supports for students..
One positive outcome of the pandemic is that it has affirmed the importance of teachers and public schools in general. It has also demonstrated powerfully that many parents are not cut out to be teachers, and that public schools are essential not only for the economic and emotional well-being of students, but of their parents as well. It has also laid bare the crucial contribution of schools to the functioning of the overall economy, by making it possible for parents and other caregivers to work.
That affirmation of the central role of schooling will be something the Biden administration could build on in the coming months. And anyone who cares about the central importance of education in shaping the nation’s future will have the opportunity to hold him to the pledges he has made.
* This is an updated version of a report published on Nov. 3. John Fensterwald contributed to this report.