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.”