By Proposing Big Bump in Funding for Full-Service Community Schools, Biden Signals Shift in Education Policy

First Focus on Children’s Bruce Lesley points to the President’s American Families Plan and Biden’s federal budget proposal as statements of values and priorities. Indicting the Trump administration’s utter failure to address the needs of America’s families and children, First Focus shows that the percentage of federal spending on children has declined every year since the end of the Obama-Biden administration from 8.19 percent in 2016 to 7.48 percent in 2020.

First Focus on Children praises President Biden for taking steps to turn around this downward trend by pressing Congress to enact his American Families Plan, which would extend the Child Tax Credit, passed temporarily earlier in the spring as part of COVID relief; provide universal pre-Kindergarten; invest in child care; increase support for educators and child care providers; create a national paid family and medical leave program; reduce child hunger and improve child nutrition; extend affordable family care tax credits; and extend access to college.

First Focus’s emphasis is on social supports for middle and lower income families. Public education policy is also children’s policy, and under No Child Left Behind and programs like Race to the Top, the federal government set out to punish the schools in America’s poorest communities—to turn them around quickly and force them to raise test scores. Many public school advocates continue to watch and to hope that President Biden and his Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will turn away from test-and-punish.

Writing for The Progressive, Jeff Bryant highlights one significant budget proposal which he believes does portend such a shift. Tucked into President Biden’s proposed education budget is a magnificent increase—from $30 million to $443 million—for Full-Service Community Schools.  Bryant believes this investment would begin not only to correct the failures of President Trump and Betsy DeVos but also to turn away from the education policy mistakes of President Obama and Arne Duncan.

Bryant explains: “President Joe Biden’s first budget request for the U.S. Department of Education signals a significant departure from the education policy priorities of previous presidential administrations. And not just a shift from the priorities of the Trump Administration, which was expected, but also from those of the Obama years.  It’s a welcome sign that the era of blaming teachers for low test scores may finally be coming to an end… Obama’s first budget request for the Department of Education, submitted to Congress in 2009, was all about fiscal austerity and accountability.  It called for cutting Title I funds—the federal government’s program to support high-poverty schools—and shifting $1 billion from that program to grants for highly disruptive federal interventions in ‘low-performing’ public schools (read schools with low test scores). Other budget priorities included controversial teacher pay-for-performance programs and extra resources targeted just to high schools—all ‘while holding down spending,’ Education Week reported.”

Bryant continues: “Biden faces a difficult economic climate, as did Obama, this time caused by a pandemic, and the fact that his party’s majorities in Congress are much thinner than those that Obama enjoyed at the start of his term. Yet Biden’s first budget is much more progressive than what Obama offered, calling for more than doubling Title I from its current $16.5 billion to $36.5 billion… Other notable proposals from Biden include: more money for early childhood education; an approximately 20 percent boost of $2.6 billion for educating students with disabilities; and $1 billion to help schools hire more counselors, nurses, and mental health professionals.”  And then there is the enormous proposed increase for Community Schools.

President Biden’s proposed investment in Full-Service Community Schools would fund the kind of support for poor families—the social service and medical investments First Focus highlights in Biden’s American Families Plan. Half a century of research has demonstrated that in many ways poverty undermines children’s capacity to thrive at school. Community Schools gather and manage already available services right in the school building where they are accessible for children, parents, and the entire family.

I once had the extraordinary experience of visiting a Full-Service Community School. The Ellen Lurie School, a New York City public school, is located in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. This Community School, founded in 1993, is well established. New York City Public Schools reports that the school’s students are 92 percent Latino-Latina and 92 percent disadvantaged. The school is part of a network of public schools operating in partnership with the Children’s Aid Society of New York City, the lead partner whose appointed Community School Director coordinates all the social and medical services that wrap around the school’s academic program led by the school principal. My group visited this school right at the end of the school day, when children had transitioned to a marvelous after-school program funded by a federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant. There was a community garden at the school, and some groups of children were working in the garden, while others were chopping vegetables from the garden as part of a cooking project.  Many other children were involved in a dance program. Right in the school building were a medical clinic where children could get immunizations and checkups, a dental clinic, and a mental health clinic—all this funded by Medicaid. Federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start were housed right in the school. One classroom was filled with commercial sewing machines and huge spools of thread—equipment used by parents for job training. The school also boasted a fine summer program that served a majority of the school’s students.

Bryant points to the documented success of the model, with a study in 2020 from RAND confirming that Community Schools have “higher rates of attendance, graduation, and math achievement, as well as fewer in-grade retentions, dropouts, and disciplinary actions.”  Such massive data studies almost seem superfluous when you tour such a school. The data merely confirms what could be the only result of such programs designed to engage and help families and nurture children.

Bryant points out that President Biden’s priority for the expansion of Full-Service Community Schools sets him apart from from the Department of Education’s guiding philosophy in the Obama years during which Biden himself served as Vice President: “The Obama Administration, through policies like Race to the Top, incentivized states to adopt a ‘no-excuse’ approach… that punished schools and teachers for low test scores…. During the Obama years, legislation to fund the Full-Service Community Schools Program was introduced in 2011 and submitted again in 2014, but it never passed out of committee. Then in 2015, two amendments to the Every Student Succeeds Act… authorized a full-service community schools grant program and made program coordinators an allowable use of federal funds. Under Obama the program’s budget was a mere $9.7 million in 2015 and $10 million in 2016… Under Trump, Congress managed to boost funding for the program to $30 million, where it stands today.”

Bryant believes Biden’s new budget reflects an extraordinary strategic shift in priorities: “Biden’s budget would boost funding for the Full-Service Community Schools Program by $413 million, an almost fourteen-fold increase, to $443 million.”

What Is President Biden’s American Families Plan?

Tonight, when President Biden marks 100 days in office with a major speech to a joint session of Congress, he is expected to announce the second part of his Infrastructure Plan—the American Families Plan.  This part of Biden’s agenda does not directly support the public schools, but it will continue to ameliorate child poverty and reduce stress on families and thereby help public school students in myriad ways.

The Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein explains what is known about the plan, despite that negotiations have been fluid even in recent days: “The ‘American Families Plan,’ set to be released ahead of the president’s joint address to Congress on Wednesday, calls for devoting hundreds of billions of dollars to national child care, prekindergarten, paid family leave and tuition-free community college, among other domestic priorities… The key components of the plan consist of roughly $300 billion in education funding, the biggest pot of which includes funding to make two-year community colleges tuition-free; $225 billion in child-care funding; $225 billion for paid family and medical leave; $200 billion for prekindergarten instruction; and $200 billion to extend more enhanced Affordable Care Act subsidies….  The plan would also extend a more robust child tax credit until 2025… a measure that could cost as much as $400 billion, as well as extend a more robust tax credit for workers. Aides repeatedly stressed that the details of the plan were subject to change and that final decisions had not yet been made.”

Fiscally austere federal policy to address economic inequality dates back to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the law that ended welfare. Policy designed to stigmatize instead of helping low income families has been around for so long that, it’s clear, the path to final enactment of Biden’s American Families Plan will not be smooth. Stein continues: “Those programs all largely reflect ideas that have moved into the Democratic mainstream, brought to the fore by the changes caused by the pandemic. The United States is the only wealthy nation with no federally provided paid maternity leave; is one of about five with no paid paternity leave; and is one of two without general paid sick leave… The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has ranked the United States as one of the worst in the world in terms of spending on families, with parents particularly stressed by the high cost and lack of access of child care during the pandemic.”

Negotiations in Congress look challenging. CNN‘s Phil Mattingly reports that after tonight’s speech to Congress, “Biden will then hit the road on his first sales pitch for the plan later this week.” The American Family Plan is being announced second—after the Infrastructure Plan was recently announced.  Mattingly explains: “(O)fficials acknowledged to CNN… that this is a far heavier lift politically, with limited chance for any GOP buy-in. The two pieces were spaced out intentionally in part to give space for Biden’s infrastructure plan to attract bipartisan support.” From the other side, Congressional Democrats are demanding that Biden extend the plan with additional programs and investments.

Especially controversial with Republicans are the tax reforms that have been discussed as the way to pay for the plan. Stein explains: “Biden and White House officials have been adamant that their tax hikes would not hit anyone earning under $400,000 per year. The key tax changes are expected to include increasing the top tax rate from 37 percent to 39.6 percent; taxing investment gains from capital income at ordinary wage rates for those earning more than $1 million; and imposing a higher tax on assets when they are transferred at death, among other provisions….”

A Little History about the Need for Such a Plan

In the first 100 days of his term, President Biden has been taking enormous steps to try to establish a new set of foundational values regarding the role of government for supporting children—both at school and at home. When a major shift is underway in the direction of public policy, it is difficult to discern the ultimate implications.  We can’t anticipate how Biden’s Infrastructure Plan will work out or even whether he will get his proposed budget for education passed.

We had another major shift in the basic values under public policy when a  bipartisan Congressional coalition passed the omnibus No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) back in 2002. That law—with its glowing title about saving children—would instead solidify the idea that public schools across America are failing and would launch an era of austerity budgeting for public schools federally and across the states. We have now watched two-decades of blaming and sanctioning the schools serving America’s poorest children instead of helping them.  And at the same time, federal policy has reduced economic support for the poorest children served by public schools. The federal punitive requirements of NCLB conspired with the 1996 law that “ended welfare as we know it”— and later with the Great Recession followed by austerity budgeting across the states after the Tea Party wave election in 2010—to destroy overall state investment in public education and programs to help families barely subsisting as economic inequality soared.

It took two years (through 2018 and 2019) of statewide walkouts by public school teachers from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma along with huge strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland and Chicago to begin to correct NCLB’s strategy of test-and-punish. Teachers finally opened the nation’s eyes to the impact on schools and on children of austerity budgeting and privatizing education—an agenda that had conspired across the states to punish, privatize, and even close public schools in America’s poorest communities.  Striking teachers across the states exposed what had been invisible: staffing shortages that left children stuffed in classes of 40 students and that left children in public schools without an adequate number of counselors, school psychologists, school nurses and librarians.

It’s been a long time coming, but right now President Biden is attempting significantly to shift policy that shapes the lives of America’s poorest children and their schools. Biden’s American Rescue Plan, signed into law on March 11, allocates significant dollars for school reopening, and his FY 22 budget proposal would double investment in the Title I program that invests extra dollars in the public schools serving concentrations of America’s poorest children. Both are designed to rectify the damage to schools wrought by NCLB and a cascade of other punitive policies like Race to the Top.

Today the Biden Administration, spurred on by the economic catastrophe of COVID-19, will propose to supplement those investments by introducing the American Families Plan, intended to reshape national policies that have blamed America’s poorest families for being poor and denied them urgently needed public support. The American Families Plan would make permanent the American Rescue Act’s temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit and offer a boost for families struggling to afford preschool, for young people unable to afford community college, and for families shut out of affordable childcare and burdened with persistent poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

Last month when the President’s infrastructure bill was announced, the Center for Law and Public Policy’s executive director, Claudia Golden responded to the parts of the infrastructure package that comprise the American Families Plan: “CLASP looks forward to supporting the remaining crucial infrastructure investments anticipated in the forthcoming American Families Plan. A successful economic recovery can’t occur without a national paid leave program that enables workers everywhere to take time when they need to care for themselves or loved ones without risking their livelihoods. It requires a large-scale investment to transform the nation’s child care and early education system, building on the important first step in the recently enacted American Rescue Plan to stabilize the sector.  A comprehensive recovery must also make permanent improvements to the child tax credit and earned income tax credit included in the American Rescue Plan, as well as a substantial additional investment in mental health….”