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Politics
Democrat Joe Biden is slated to be sworn in as America's 46th president on Jan. 20, 2021. In the meantime, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will begin to build their administration.

What A Biden Presidency Could Mean For Education

President-elect Joe Biden stands on stage with his wife, Jill Biden, on Saturday in Wilmington, Del.
President-elect Joe Biden stands on stage with his wife, Jill Biden, on Saturday in Wilmington, Del.

With the eyes of the country upon him, Joe Biden shouted out education during his speech on Saturday in Wilmington, Del: "For American educators, this is a great day for you all. You're going to have one of your own in the White House."

Of course, the president-elect was talking about his wife, Jill Biden, an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College. She continued her teaching career during Biden's two terms as vice president, and in a break with precedent, intends to continue doing so as first lady.

Which raises the question as the transition planning moves forward: How has this perspective shaped the president-elect's education agenda? And how much of that agenda can Biden hope to achieve, with the massive challenges of coronavirus and the economic recession, and with Democratic control of the Senate in doubt?

Here's our overview of his policy priorities for K-12 and higher education:

Reopening schools safely

Like so much in the country, experts say, the president's education agenda must start by confronting the threat of coronavirus. As of Nov. 9, according to one national estimate, 63% of U.S. students were enrolled in districts that offered some in-person learning at least a few days a week.

But even within those districts, many or most students are staying home to avoid the virus. And education experts still forecast huge amounts of learning loss and negative social and emotional impacts, especially for younger students, those with special needs and lower-income students.

The question of whether, and when, to reopen schools became a political debate over the summer when President Trump called forcefully for reopening, without providing additional funding through Congress. Biden, by contrast, has publicly noted the estimate by the School Superintendents Association and the Association of Educational Service Agencies that K-12 education needs at least $200 billion in emergency funding.

This week the president-elect named a COVID-19 task force, composed of doctors and public health experts. Some members have spoken cautiously in favor of reopening schools, but only with proper safety measures in place — and the resources to do it right.

For example, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the co-chair of the new task force, wrote on Twitter in September: "3 keys to open schools: low community prevalence of virus (critical), safety precautions (eg reduced class sizes, universal masking), and resources for implementation."

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, another task force member, co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times in July that outlined safe school reopening guidelines. "We all want schools to open, even as we recognize the risks attached," the piece noted. But it also reinforced the idea that, "Being safe is not free." In other words, following measures like social distancing and smaller class sizes takes additional funding.

That includes hiring teachers and substitutes to keep schools staffed. Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, tells NPR that by the union's estimates almost a million educators have been laid off since the passage of the initial coronavirus relief package last spring.

Aside from funding, experts told NPR that they expect a Biden education department to do more to help schools operate through the pandemic. Scott Sargard at the left-leaning Center for American Progress said, "I think you'll certainly hear from the Education Department more of an effort to actually provide guidance to school districts on ... how to ensure that, if you're considering reopening, that they can do that safely; how to improve their remote learning strategies."

The urgency of the pandemic — and a closely divided Senate, with control awaiting the outcome of two Georgia runoffs in January — also means that a coronavirus relief package could end up being this administration's most significant intervention in public schools.

Michael J. Petrilli, of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, points to the Obama-era Race to the Top initiative as a potential model. In 2009, tasked with crafting a giant economic rescue package amid the financial crisis, the Obama administration created a funding competition for states. Race to the Top influenced the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, high stakes evaluations for teachers, data systems for schools and other innovations.

This time, Petrilli says, "I think the Biden folks are likely to be looking very carefully at what goes into this relief bill and try to get [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and other Republicans to go along with as much as they can, to get some of their larger agenda."

Teacher Pay And Respect

The U.S. Education Department controls only around 10 percent of the dollars spent on K-12 public education in this country. A lot of that comes through the $16 billion Title I program, which goes to schools serving the most high-poverty students. The Biden campaign pledged to triple that funding and, first off, direct states to use it preferentially to bump up teacher pay. Teachers consistently make about 20 percent less than other professionals with the same amount of education — a number that has risen slightly in the wake of teacher walkouts in many states in 2018.

That's a lot of money, and the fate of Biden's Title I proposal is unknown, as is whether the federal government will be successful in telling cash-strapped states how to allocate that money if they do pass it.

Of course, one of the biggest ways in which the incoming administration will signal its support for educators is through the naming of an education secretary. "It is a teacher. A teacher. Promise," Biden told the NEA, the nation's largest teachers union, back in July 2019.

"It seems like something we would take for granted, that the secretary of education would be an educator," says the NEA's Pringle. "But no, it is something we have to say out loud." And, she added, "it brings a smile to my face to say it."

However, that doesn't necessarily mean a K-12 teacher. "The most politically savvy thing for them to do," says the Fordham Institute's Petrilli,"is to pick somebody from the world of higher education who can get around some of the complications with their reform wing versus the union wing within the [Democratic] party."

The Education Department wields a much bigger budgetary impact on higher education, through student aid, than it does with K-12. So, having someone in charge who's an expert in higher ed — for example the president of an historically black college or a community college — makes a lot of sense, Petrilli says.

Rights and equity

The Secretary of Education commands a bully pulpit, particularly on issues of discrimination, segregation and bias through the Office of Civil Rights. During her controversial tenure, the current secretary, Betsy DeVos, made headlines for rolling back rights for students who are transgender, and for guidance on racially discriminatory discipline.

Pringle says her union will be looking to Biden's Education Department to be a partner: "On racial justice. Social justice. The work we still have to do for women and girls ... the rights of our LGBTQ students."

Scott Sargard at CAP agreed: "I think we'll see a real effort to actually enforce our nation's civil rights laws, and rebuild the Office for Civil Rights and make sure that they are investigating complaints, that they're pursuing cases, that they're taking their role as enforcing civil rights laws seriously."

Early childhood education

The president-elect has promised a broad expansion of K12 to include 3- and 4-year olds in the form of "high-quality, universal pre-kindergarten."

Publicly funded preschool has been gaining momentum in the states over the past two decades. Tulsa, Okla., adopted an influential and high-quality program back in 2001, with promising long-term results. Washington, D.C., and New York City have programs too, and Multnomah County, Ore., where Portland is located, just passed a preschool initiative of its own.

The pandemic has driven hundreds of thousands of mothers out of the workforce, highlighting the conflict between the needs of small children and the demands of the economy. At the Democratic convention this summer, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts delivered a remote address from an early childhood classroom, stressing the message that childcare is "infrastructure for families."

But, like tripling Title I and increasing teachers' pay, any major expansion of pre-K is going to be expensive, likely requiring both states and the federal government to chip in. Pringle says she'll be looking for action from agencies like HHS, which oversees Head Start, and the Department of Labor as well as the Education Department.

Higher Ed:

For higher education, Biden released an expensive and ambitious plan during the campaign that included free public colleges, loan-forgiveness and more money for low-income students to pay for college.

Broadly, the federal government's approach to higher education seems almost certain to be less confrontational. In both rhetoric and policy, the Trump administration was openly hostile to colleges, viewing them as liberal, elite institutions that were out of touch with the rest of the country.

"Across most of public and private nonprofit higher ed, there is a sigh of relief," says Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.

"This will be an administration that cares about the challenges that students are facing, that knows that the cost of college is a significant problem and needs to be addressed both on the front end and the back end," says Antoinette Flores, director of postsecondary education at the Center For American Progress.

Other experts, though, are less certain how far the Biden administration might go to fight for progresive policy proposals, some of which were borrowed from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders for the campaign.

"These plans, they look nothing like what [Biden] advocated in 2008, or really nothing like what he's advocated for most of his career," says Jason Delisle, of American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. "We should take him at his word. But, you look at what he's proposed on higher ed in the past and you just sort of have to say, 'Do you really believe your own stuff here? How hard is he going to fight for this?' "

Plus, there is the potential of a Republican-controlled Senate, which will pose a challenge for progressive legislation and funding increases. That means the administration will most likely rely on other ways to make policy changes: through executive orders and regulations from the Department of Education.

More Money:

As with K-12 schools, the biggest priority for higher ed is getting through the pandemic. Just 40 percent of colleges are operating fully or primarily in-person this fall.

"The finances are very bad across the board right now," says Kelchen. "[Colleges] have laid off staff members, they've laid off faculty, they've cut majors in programs. They're doing everything they can to preserve their money so they can get through the length of the pandemic, and quite a few colleges are starting to run out of money because this has gone on so long."

The American Council on Education, a group representing college presidents, is asking for $120 billion to support higher ed. A relief package will be a major priority for the Biden administration if the Trump administration and Congress can't do something in the meantime.

Student Loans:

There was a lot of talk during the campaign, especially from Democratic candidates Warren and Sanders, about forgiving some — or all — of the nation's $1.5 trillion in student debt.

Congress and the Trump administration opened the door in March, when they issued a moratorium on student loan payments because of the pandemic, which Trump later extended through Dec. 31. Higher education groups have asked Devos to extend that suspension of payments until September 2021. "I expect the Biden administration to support that plan," writes Kelchen in an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The pandemic may be good cover for loan-forgiveness — Biden has proposed a number of changes to paying back loans, including cancelling $10,000 in debt for students who work in national or community service.

But it's unclear exactly how the administration would go about doing that in a more permanent way. Warren has noted that the Secretary of Education does have the power to cancel loans, via an obscure and rarely used provision in a 1958 law.

"Would Biden's Secretary of Education use that authority to enact his loan forgiveness plans? I don't know," says Delisle. "Politically speaking, the question is, how far can you take it? Trump has pushed the envelope, in terms of power, and so for Democrats, it's really, how much can you get away with?"

Immigration

The Trump administration has tightened restrictions on immigration, which often directly affect higher education, notably in a rollercoaster two weeks this summer when the administration tried to ban international students from coming to the U.S. if their classes were held online due to the pandemic. It's possible the Biden administration will focus on imigration ahead of any policies specific to higher education.

"Higher education is, in general, very supportive of making it easier for international students to come to, and stay in, the U.S.," explains Kelchen. "International enrollment went down substantially this fall, part of it due to the pandemic and part of it due to changes in immigration policy. And that's a big revenue loss."

A Biden administration could also push to make protections for Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, permanent, and to create a path to Amercian citizenship. That policy has been encouraged by higher education leaders and groups.

Walking back DeVos' policies

Additional policies the Biden administration may strengthen or revive that were dismantled or weakened under Trump include "borrower defense to repayment," a policy that allows for the cancellation of debt when students have been misled or defrauded by their colleges and the "gainful-employment" rule, a policy that targets programs where debt is high in relation to income.

Another focus point: Title IX , which governs how colleges handle sexual assault and sexual harassment. As vice president, Biden helped craft federal guidelines around students' reports of assault — he personally unveiled the now famous "Dear Colleague" letter that outlined how colleges should handle reports.

Under Devos, the rule was changed — strengthening protections for accused students and employees. Advocates for victims' rights say that made it harder for people to report offenses.

"I think [Biden] will continue prioritizing addressing sexual harassment and safe school climates for students," says Shiwali Patel, of the National Women's Law Center, an organization currently challenging Devos' Title IX changes in court.

For-Profit:

The Trump administration has been friendly with the for-profit sector, but that is set to change under a Biden administration. As the attorney general of California, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris prosecuted Corinthian Colleges, a large chain of for-profit colleges that defrauded students.

"Harris' track record prosecuting for-profits and her awareness of the depths of the abuses is really important," says Flores of the Center for American Progress. "I think that will inform the response in the regulations that come out of this administration."

While several large for-profit companies were shut down under the Obama administration, the pandemic may usher in new growth to the sector, she notes. Already this fall, enrollment is up at for-profit colleges while all other types of colleges have seen declines.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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