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….”

I Have Begun to Worry about Where Miguel Cardona is Leading Education Policy

When my careful, watchful, and somewhat shy daughter came home for lunch on the first day of first grade, I heard the words every parent looks for on the first day of school: “After one morning, I already feel smoothed into school!” There are generations of parents in Cleveland Heights, Ohio who still wonder at the gifts, kindness, and dedication of Marlene Karkoska. What was it that she did to make our first graders feel “smoothed into school”?

What worries me right now is that despite the passage of the American Rescue Plan with lots of money for school districts and state governments to help get schools back up and running, I am still hearing a lot from policy makers about learning loss, the need for kids to make up the work in summer programs, and the need for testing to document what’s been lost. I’m not hearing enough about the calm, the encouragement, the confidence, and the enjoyment of being at school that Miss Karkoska provided for our children as the very foundation for their learning to read and compute.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s announcement last week that the federal government will mandate standardized testing for this school year came despite months of pleading for cancellation of this year’s standardized tests—advice from experts who know a lot about working with children, about learning theory, and about the problems of standardized test-based accountability for schools. My children started Kindergarten in 1985 and 1988, before standardized testing became the driver of American public education.  I wonder if people who have been creating education policy since the 1990s, when holding schools accountable for test score outcomes became the primary educational policy goal, can really imagine another way to think about education.

I have many questions about the strategies and plans which the U.S. Department of Education will attach to the federal stimulus awards of funds to states and schools.  One reason for my concern is that I watched the awarding of stimulus dollars to states during the Great Recession back in 2009 under Arne Duncan.  Here is some of what I worry about:

  • Will there be any real attempt when students return to school to ensure that the focus is on welcome and encouragement, and on spiraling the curriculum to review material that may have been missed as students accelerate into exploring new material?  What is to prevent the numbing drilling that has filled too many classrooms, particularly in the schools that serve our nation’s poorest children?  I recently read one suggestion that when students return, the curriculum should be further narrowed to compensate for learning loss with an intense and sole focus on language arts and math, an almost humorous suggestion if it weren’t such a blatant plea for raising test scores at all cost in the two areas the federal government already mandates standardized tests.
  • I have read that American Rescue Plan dollars can be spent on teachers and school support staff to reduce class size and add sufficient counselors and social workers. That is a very good thing, but will the federal government, as it awards dollars for these added staff, incentivize states themselves to continue to allocate adequate state funds to ensure that schools can continue employing these professionals into the future after the one-time federal grant runs out? I remember so well that Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants supported the employment of armies of one-time consultants but virtually no hiring of long term professional educators and student support staff.
  • Although most of the federal aid for school districts is being distributed through the Title I formula, some of the federal stimulus dollars in the American Rescue Plan will flow through the state governments which control the allocation of school funding. I know there are some “maintenance of effort” rules in the federal stimulus bill, but are they strong enough and will they be enforced? Can the federal government create enough regulations to prevent states from further slashing state taxes and replacing state dollars with federal stimulus dollars? Will there be rules to direct the states to spend needed money on public schools and not on expanding charter schools and private school tuition vouchers?
  • Secretary Cardona says he believes that standardized test scores in this school year can tell us more about the need for added funding in the nation’s school districts serving concentrations of poor children. Will we learn more from standardized test scores than we already know from the data currently maintained in the fifty states and collected by the National Center for Education Statistics?  There is plenty of data already available about disparities in class sizes, the number of per-pupil guidance counselors, and the number of school social workers and school psychologists.  Further, we all watched a wave of teachers’ strikes and walkouts across the states in 2018 and 2019 through which teachers exposed appalling conditions—masses of students in large classes—sometimes 40 students—counselors with case loads of 400 and 500 students—the absence of nurses, librarians.

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire summarize the financial dilemma in which public schools found themselves at the time the COVID-19 pandemic struck: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession (2008), but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.”  Schneider and Berkshire describe what we learned from the nationwide teacher strikes in 2018-2019: “(T)he recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted.  In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-43)

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black adds that the growth of school privatization has left us with a charter school sector and the expansion of publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schools at the expense of the public schools:  “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.”   And the new trends are not race-neutral: “(S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-240)

In a profound, short analysis in The Progressive, Diane Ravitch summarizes two decades of test-and-punish accountability and the growth of school privatization.  Here is her very plain, simple recommendation for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona: “Cardona could help urban schools, which are underfunded, by ending the pretense that competition (via charters and vouchers) will make them better (it doesn’t).  It starves them of needed resources. Urban districts don’t need testing, standards, accountability, and competition. We have poured billions of dollars into that fake reform and achieved little other than demoralized teachers and students whose test-centric education robs them of motivation. Why not try a radically different approach?  Why not fully fund the schools where the needs of students are greatest?… Make sure that schools that serve the neediest students have experienced teachers, small classes, and a full curriculum that includes the arts and time for play.  Now that would be a revolution!