President Elect Biden’s Public School Agenda Addresses the Opportunity Gap

A strong supporter of public education will move into the White House on January 20. President Elect Joe Biden has promised to close the Opportunity Gap by investing in public school improvement and pledging to support reform of healthcare and other conditions that worsen economic inequality. There is an important difference between Biden’s saying that we as a society have failed our children by neglecting to pay for educational opportunity and more than two decades of education policy—under Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump—that blamed public school educators for failing our children.

Closing the Opportunity Gap is a more ambitious and far more expensive goal than merely blaming and punishing public school teachers for what policymakers have, for decades, called the achievement gap. The Opportunity Gap is defined by the complex web of structural economic and racial inequality in America, not by the failure of teachers to raise test scores quickly. Framing the educational goal as “closing the achievement gap” brought us No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish policies and the Race to the Top which merely punished the schools at the bottom—the schools without adequate property taxing capacity and that serve the poorest children.

President Elect Biden’s focus is funding equity in the public schools themselves instead of creating escapes for a few children out of so-called “failing” schools. For four years we have been listening to Betsy DeVos promote vouchers and every kind of privatized school choice for parents. Before that, we had Arne Duncan promoting charterizing public schools, closing low scoring public schools as a turnaround plan, and evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores.

DeVos sought to privatize; Duncan sought to punish. Biden says he wants to help the public schools improve.

The Schott Foundation for Public Education launched an Opportunity to Learn Campaign to demand that we talk about closing Opportunity Gaps instead of framing public education policy around forcing schools to narrow test score achievement gaps: “The achievement gap between White students and Black and Latino students correlates to the OPPORTUNITY GAP—disparity in access to quality schools and the resources needed for academic success, such as early childhood education, highly prepared and effective teachers, college preparatory curricula, and equitable instructional resources. For the past two decades, our nation’s leaders have focused on “output” standards and testing to close the achievement gaps that separate different student groups. This only looks at one side of the equation for success. It is essential to hold public officials accountable for “input” standards, assuring that all students, regardless of where they live, have access to the resources they need to have a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. If we close the opportunity gap, we can close the achievement gap.”

The research for changing our public education strategy is decades long and very clear. Here are two examples:

In 2016, the National Education Policy Center’s Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley explained that school reform must address enormous disparities in opportunity among our children:  “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society. No Child Left Behind had the explicit purpose of all children achieving high standards and thereby closing the achievement gap by 2014. It did not come close. Noting the widening academic achievement gap between rich and poor, (Stanford University’s) Sean Reardon found the gap ‘roughly 20 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier.’ The irony is that the very problem the law was supposed to fix became worse…. The income achievement gap, which is closely tied to the racial gap, is attributable to income inequality, the increased difficulty of social mobility, the bifurcation of wages and the economy, and a narrowing of school purposes driven by test taking. Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities….  Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries.  We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board.”

A year later, in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard testing expert, Daniel Koretz explained why standardized test-based school accountability poses unreasonable expectations because schools cannot, quickly and without support, increase their capacity to overcome widespread inequality: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

In the years when No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were closing so-called “failing” schools or charterizing them or firing their principals or teachers, public economic support for public schools diminished. In 2008, the Great Recession reduced states’ investment in public education as tax revenues collapsed. Even after the recession ended, Tea Party-dominated state legislatures cut taxes further in many states. Finally in 2018 and 2019, the nation’s public school teachers rose up in Red4Ed strikes to show us how Opportunity Gaps had left public schools destitute. Teachers exposed: class sizes of 40 students in Los Angeles; schools everywhere without enough counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and school nurses; Chicago schools shutting down school libraries and laying off certified librarians; Oklahoma teachers with paltry salaries quitting and moving across the border to Texas; and teachers paid so little in Oakland that they were unable to afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment within driving distance from their school.

President Elect Joe Biden proposes to address the Educational Opportunity Gap with federal investment: “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.”

His plan would triple Title I funding; fully fund 40 percent of mandated IDEA special education services within a decade; incentivize greater investment by state governments by requiring states without adequate and equitable school funding to match a share of federal funding; provide high quality pre-Kindergarten for impoverished three- and four-year olds; increase the number of counselors, school psychologists, and school nurses; and increase the number of full-service Community Schools to serve 300,000 additional families.

If Republicans continue to dominate the U.S. Senate and Mitch McConnell continues as Senate President, President Biden will struggle to accomplish his Opportunity to Learn agenda.  Advocates for America’s children and for strong public schools must stop framing education policy around closing the achievement gap.  We must demand instead that Congress join with the President to overcome the Opportunity Gap by investing in the nation’s public schools and in other programs to address child poverty.

Will we, as citizens, create the political will to force Congress and the state legislatures to raise the necessary tax revenue?


An Open Letter to President Elect Biden’s Department of Education Transition Team

I encourage you, as members of President Elect Biden’s Department of Education Transition Team, to recommend the appointment of Randi Weingarten or Lily Eskelsen Garcia as our next Secretary of Education. I believe that one of these women would provide the kind of leadership in public education policy that our nation and our children desperately need.

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the outgoing President of the National Education Association, have provided extraordinary leadership of efforts by the nation’s teachers significantly to change the long narrative of standardized test-based accountability as the primary driver of federal education policy. They are both public school educators who would turn away from Betsy DeVos’s obsession with vouchers. I believe their leadership helped shape the priorities embodied in the education plan President Elect Biden released during the campaign, an agenda designed to expand opportunity within the public schools serving our nation’s most vulnerable students. Biden’s plan, if implemented, will enhance educational equity and improve children’s experiences at school.

Here are three reasons either Eskelsen Garcia or Weingarten is the right choice to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

First:     We all watched the Red4Ed strikes and walkouts during 2018 and 2019—walkouts that taught America about the devastation of state public school budgets over the decade that followed the 2008 Great Recession. Teachers on strike showed us how Tea Party tax cuts across many states had further decimated state education budgets and how states had then sent away more education dollars to a growing charter school sector and to vouchers for private school tuition.  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—class size smaller than 37 or 40 students; enough counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and certified librarians; fairer teachers’ salaries to enable teachers in some places even to afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment in the communities where they are teaching; salaries to keep teachers in some states from quitting and moving to other states where salaries are higher; and salaries that would make young people interested in becoming teachers at a time when colleges and universities report fewer and fewer students willing to pursue teaching as a career. In some right-to-work states, the national teachers unions supported spontaneous statewide walkouts by non-unionized teachers, and in strikes launched by NEA and AFT local affiliates, Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten walked with their teachers.

Second:     All this year I have watched these two women provide a level of policy leadership I have not seen for a long time. It began with the the best planned and best executed event I have ever attended—the Public Education Candidates Forum last December in Pittsburgh. It was clear who had envisioned this meeting which brought together seven of the Democratic candidates for President with 1,500 people from NEA, AFT, the Schott Foundation, SEIU, NAACP, the Journey for Justice Alliance, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the Network for Public Education, VOTO Latino, and the Center for Popular Democracy.  When I think of the diversity in that room—the questions that came from Chicago teachers and parents grieving about the Renaissance 2010 shutdown of their neighborhood schools, and comments from children in Newark who wondered why they do not have school music programs, I still have an emotional reaction. I found myself sitting between a 30 year special education teacher from the Navajo Nation and Derek Black, the constitutional law professor who just published School House Burning. That day, seven Democratic presidential candidates were pressed to commit to strategies to improve our public schools. None of the seven candidates dared to promote standardized test-and-punish; nobody promoted the expansion of charter schools. There was a lot of talk about expanding Title I and fully funding 40 percent of the IDEA. The fact that the meeting was teacher-driven was palpable.

Third:     Throughout this summer and until Congress gave up at the end of October, the NEA and the AFT have relentlessly advocated for a second COVID-19 relief HEROES Act. A second relief bill was never enacted, but Weingarten and Eskelsen Garcia kept the focus on those Senate Republicans who refused to consider helping out state governments that provide over 40 percent of all public school funding. These women kept on reminding America that Congress was failing to support public schools during COVID-19, a time when schools were being pressured to reopen or were forced to operate online without adequate guidance or support.  Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten have consistently outlined what will be the years-long repercussions for the the public schools that serve our children.

While people like Michelle Rhee say that teachers unions work for the needs of adults instead of children, Michelle Rhee is wrong.  Weingarten and Eskelsen Garcia have persistently pressed the Democratic Party to choose a candidate with a pro-public school plan, which is also an emphatically pro-child agenda.  Weingarten spent the entire month of October on a cross country bus tour meeting with schoolteachers and promoting Biden’s election and his pro-public schools plan.

I live in Ohio, which has fallen head-over-heals behind Betsy DeVos’s dream of vouchers for all, and which, for the two previous decades, also embraced education policy dominated by technocratic, neoliberal, test-and–punish, outcomes-driven education reform.  In Ohio, worrying about standardized test score outcomes instead of investment in the public schools has left us with a poorly regulated charter school sector and at least 5 different kinds of vouchers, along with state school report cards that drive segregation and educational redlining; autocratic state takeovers in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland; and the third-grade guarantee. This month our legislature is considering a new school funding formula because 503 districts out of Ohio’s 610 school districts are capped or have fallen into hold-harmless guarantees. But our legislators are honest about the shortage of funding: the new plan will be a blueprint to be phased in over 6 years if the legislature can, in upcoming legislative sessions, find the money to pay for the full phase in.

We need a U.S. Secretary of Education who will lead us away from DeVos’s drive to extract dollars out of public schools for vouchers for private and religious schools. Just as important, we need an education secretary and who will not take us back to the Obama-Duncan agenda—to another Race to the Top competition, to the further expansion of charter schools, to evaluation of teachers by their students’ standardized test scores, to the idea of school closure as a turnaround plan, and all the rest.

Thank you for serving on the Department of Education Transition Team.  I hope you will recommend to President Elect Biden that he appoint Lily Eskelsen Garcia or Randi Weingarten as our next U.S. Secretary of Education. These women are fully prepared to promote and implement President Elect Biden’s plan to close opportunity gaps across our nation’s public schools.

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.