President Elect Joe Biden’s Education Plan Is Designed to Expand the Opportunity to Learn

The education plan President Elect Joe Biden announced during his campaign for President reflects a public school, “opportunity to learn” agenda—a radical renunciation of the private school, radically individualistic policies of our current President, Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. The plan Biden has promoted also differs significantly from the technocratic neoliberalism embodied in education policy during the Obama administration, when Biden served as Vice President.

Through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, public education policy rested on threatening public schools with sanctions if they were unable promptly to raise aggregate standardized test scores and close what were called achievement gaps. The No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top strategy punitively demanded ever-rising outcomes.  President Elect Biden instead emphasizes investing in inputs to expand public schools’ capacity to close opportunity gaps. Biden’s plan reflects his understanding that government is responsible for investing in programs and services necessary to ensure that all students can thrive.

Biden’s pledge to expand the opportunity to learn reflects an understanding of school achievement documented last year by Sean Reardon, a Stanford University education sociologist in Is Separate Still Unequal? New Evidence on School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps. Here Reardon addresses specifically what has been called the black-white achievement gap: “We examine racial test score gaps because they reflect racial differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… (D)ifferences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

For fifteen years before Trump and DeVos launched a quest for radically expanding publicly funded vouchers to enable families to pay tuition at private and religious schools, Democrats joined Republicans in endorsing the rapid expansion of charter schools, which many Democrats justified by claiming that charters, are not really private. I once heard a prominent Washington, D.C. liberal Democrat say, “We can’t support vouchers because they are a form of privatization, but charter schools are OK because, you know, they aren’t really private.” Charter schools are, of course, privately operated—a form of government contracting with private operators at taxpayer expense. The Clinton and Obama administrations invested in the growth of charter schools. Biden has distanced himself from the pursuit of more charter schools. He has, at least, condemned the charter management companies that are making a profit from our tax dollars and has pledged improve oversight of a charter sector filled with fraud and corruption.  We can’t yet be sure about how he will deal with the threat of charter school privatization. It is notable, however, that his education plan emphasizes reforms to support the nation’s public schools, while there is no endorsement of standardized testing, school accountability, charter schools, vouchers, or marketplace school choice.

Biden’s education plan does, however, reflect what we all learned from events in 2018 and 2019 that challenged the nation’s understanding of what has gone missing in public schools. Over the decade from 2008—at the same time federal policy was demanding that somehow schools immediately raise aggregate standardized test scores—the Great Recession collapsed state budgets and thereby devastated state funding that makes up roughly 40 percent of public investment in K-12 education. Then across many states, Tea Party state legislators elected in 2010 further cut the taxes needed to fund the public schools and other state functions.

In massive walkouts and strikes through 2018 and 2019—from West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland and Chicago—teachers cried out for essentials their public schools could no longer afford. We watched teachers demand that their legislatures provide enough money to reduce class sizes of 40 students. Teachers protested an epidemic shortage of counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and certified librarians. Red4Ed strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland demonstrated how public schools had been devastated by the diversion of local school budgets to charter schools. Economist Gordon Lafer showed, for example, that the Oakland Unified School District loses $57.3 million every year as essential public school funds are diverted to charter schools. Although the press has covered pleas for the public to contribute to go-fund-me campaigns to help teachers buy classroom supplies, teachers taught us in two years of strikes what a shortage of educational investment really means: widespread disinvestment in staff. Not only were key staff being laid off, but teachers’ salaries in too many school districts were declining below the level of decency.  In some places we heard from teachers who were unable afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment in the communities where they were teaching. Teachers in Oklahoma were quitting and moving to Texas where salaries were higher.  Colleges and universities reported fewer and fewer students willing to pursue teaching as a career.

Biden’s education plan declares that he listened to striking teachers: “We have witnessed educators around the country—in states from West Virginia to Arizona to Kentucky—heroically organize walkouts and other actions to stand up not just for their own wages and benefits, but also for the resources they need to serve their students.  Educators shouldn’t have to fight so hard for resources and respect.”  During the campaign, Biden pledged to:

  • Triple funding for Title I, the federal program funding schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families;
  • Increase funding for mandated programs under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to the full 40 percent of the cost—what Congress originally promised when the law was passed. Today Congress funds roughly 14 percent of the cost and leaves the rest to be absorbed by local school district budgets.
  • Use federal policy to promote equity by incentivizing states to increase investment in the local school districts with the least capacity to raise local revenue. “States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.”
  • Provide high-quality universal pre-Kindergarten for all three-and four-year-olds.
  • Ensure teachers receive competitive salaries and benefits: “Public school teachers’ average weekly wage hasn’t increased since 1996.”
  • “Double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in our schools so our kids get the mental health care they need.”
  • Provide wraparound, full service Community Schools to serve 300,000 additional students and their families.

During the campaign, President Elect Biden proposed public school policy designed to expand the opportunity to learn: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Educators and advocates will need to hold Joe Biden accountable for these promises even as we work to support his efforts to make them a reality.  A significant challenge for Biden will be passing the tax increase he has pledged to enact for corporations and the wealthiest Americans—a tax increase which would pay for his education plan and other important programs. Mitch McConnell will continue to lead a Republican majority Senate, whose members will likely not be amenable to raising these taxes.