President Donald Trump tried to bully schools into opening their buildings, a hard-edge pandemic tactic that succeeded in places and backfired elsewhere. President-elect Joe Biden is hoping to pry them open with money for increased coronavirus expenses and clear guidance on how to do so safely, a shift that signals a new era for education policy in America.
Under Trump, the Education Department has been led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, who alienated many by casting public schools as failures and promoting alternatives to them. Through executive action and negotiations with Congress, Biden wants to bolster public schools.
Biden has promised hundreds of billions of dollars in new education spending, from preschool through college. He has proposed college debt forgiveness. And he wants to overturn a controversial regulation on sexual harassment and assault that universities and others strongly opposed.
He has also promised to appoint an educator as secretary of education and likes to tell people that a teacher will join him in the White House. Jill Biden, an English professor at a community college in Northern Virginia, has said she plans to continue teaching as first lady.
“Teaching isn’t just what she does – it’s who she is,” Biden said Saturday in a victory speech after being declared the winner of the presidential race. “For America’s educators, this is a great day: You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.”
With the election now decided, transition teams for every federal agency are beginning the work of assessing the state of each department, cataloguing Biden’s promises, determining what can be done by executive action and what needs Congress, and setting priorities.
For the Education Department, the transition committee is being led by Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education, several people said. Darling-Hammond, who was considered for education secretary by President Barack Obama in 2008, is under consideration again, people familiar with the process said. Also under consideration are two teachers union leaders: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; and Lily Eskelsen García, former president of the National Education Association.
Biden has said he wants a diverse Cabinet, and many of those being touted or considered are people of color.
Democrats for Education Reform, a centrist group that supports Obama-era accountability measures, is pushing several names and hoping for a secretary who will be open to their views. That’s a challenge, given that Biden aligned himself closely with teachers unions, who oppose much of their agenda. In an email to supporters obtained by Chalkbeat, the group’s president singled out three big-city school leaders: Sonja Brookins Santelises of the Baltimore City Schools, Janice Jackson of the Chicago Public Schools and William Hite of the School District of Philadelphia.
Other names mentioned by people familiar with the process include Tony Thurmond, the California state superintendent of public instruction; Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., a former teacher of the year; Betty Rosa, interim commissioner of education in New York state; and Denise Juneau, superintendent of Seattle Public Schools.
Many of Biden’s promises require new spending, and that will require support from Congress, a heavy lift, particularly if the Senate remains under Republican control.
Biden has promised to triple spending for the $15 billion Title 1 program, which targets high-poverty schools. He has said he would double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses and social workers in schools. He has vowed new money for school infrastructure. And he has said he would dramatically increase federal spending for special education.
He also wants to fund universal prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-old children; make community college debt-free; and double Pell grants to help low-income students pay for college.
First up will be coronavirus-related spending, particularly if Congress has not passed a relief package before Inauguration Day. Some emergency funding for schools was approved in the spring, but the Trump administration has been unable to cut a legislative deal for additional money.
Biden has endorsed at least $88 billion to stabilize state education funding and help pay for protective equipment, ventilation systems, reduced class sizes and other expenses associated with operating school during the pandemic.
“Schools – they need a lot of money to open,” Biden said last month at the second presidential debate.
Weingarten, the union president, suggested that a coronavirus relief bill negotiated by Biden could wrap in some of the rest of his agenda, such as support for more school nurses or counselors. “There’s a real opportunity to meet the needs of children,” she said.
Biden also has promised to give schools “clear, consistent, effective national guidelines” for reopening. That process will begin on Monday when the Biden transition committee announces a committee of scientists and experts that will turn his campaign proposals on the pandemic into an “action blueprint.”
Trump simply demanded that schools reopen, saying it’s better for children and for the economy. The pressure campaign succeeded with some, with schools throughout Texas and Florida ordered open. In other communities, his demands had the opposite effect, hardening teacher and parent opposition to going back.
On other fronts, the new administration is likely undo many of the things that DeVos did, and redo some of the Obama administration policies that DeVos undid.
DeVos rescinded Education Department guidance meant to reduce racial disparities in school discipline, for instance, something the incoming administration can reinstate. The administration also spiked Obama-era guidance that offered protections for transgender students, including the right to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity. And it killed guidance on use of affirmative action in college admissions.
Other likely reversals: a Justice Department lawsuit alleging discrimination against White and Asian students at Yale University; a ban on federal grant recipients from holding diversity training, and an investigation into Princeton University, launched after the university’s president spoke of institutional racism on campus.
“It’s a new day around this national conversation about race and equity … making sure communities are not intentionally or unintentionally left out of opportunities will be key,” said Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher-education policy at the nonprofit Education Trust.
Another huge target: a Title IX regulation giving students accused of sexual assault more due-process rights in investigations. This would require formal regulations or legislative action.
The Biden administration also needs to decide how it will handle student debt forgiveness and collections for millions of borrowers.
In March, the Trump administration imposed a 60-day moratorium on student debt collection, which has been extended through December. Biden could try to reinstate the moratorium if it is not renewed again before he takes office.
More broadly, Biden promised to cancel at least $10,000 in student debt for every borrower in response to the recession. It’s unclear, though, whether the new administration will try to do this on its own or work with Congress to codify it into legislation.
Separately, the new administration is expected to revive an Obama-era policy that allows the administration to cancel debt for students who were misled by their colleges about graduation or job placement rates. The Trump administration rewrote the regulation to make it harder for students to seek forgiveness.
The agency is also likely to restore the gainful employment rule, which threatens to cut off federal student aid to vocational programs whose graduates consistently have high loan payments relative to their income.
Some observers expect the incoming administration to be even tougher on for-profit colleges than Obama was. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was instrumental in bringing down Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit giant, when she was California state attorney general and as a senator supported efforts to hold predatory for-profit colleges to account.
“Policies will be designed to protect students and taxpayers first,” predicted Dan Zibel, who worked at the agency under Obama and is now chief counsel at the National Student Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit he co-founded. He said that would likely include “taking harder stances against schools and companies using financial aid system to scam students.”