In his victory speech Saturday night, presumptive President-Elect Joe Biden called for national unity. But educators, education organizations and associations and legal experts are far from united in their views on what a Biden presidency might mean for K-12.
Although the final outcome of the election will not be certain until the Electoral College votes in December and legal challenges are settled, the education community is responding to Biden’s presumptive win with mixed feelings.
Unions and associations eager for collaboration, COVID-19 relief
Many organizations and associations are hoping to collaborate with the new administration. The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, for example, told Education Dive they want to strengthen public schools. Principals’ organizations — National Association of Elementary School Principals and National Association of Secondary School Principals — expressed similar sentiments.
Others are focused on COVID-19 relief in the short term. National Head Start Association Executive Director Yasmina Vinci said in a statement the organization is pushing for at least $1.7 billion for Head Start and Early Head Start programs to address rising costs.
Meanwhile, Chip Slaven, chief advocacy officer for the National School Boards Association, said he hopes the administration focuses on public schools specifically, saying that’s where “most [students] are right now.”
But Slaven emphasized any successful effort needs to be bipartisan. “Local school board members that are on the frontlines who are bipartisan, or nonpartisan, we can help lead many of these efforts,” he said.
In the meantime, Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank, suggested Biden may try to get some checklist items — like teacher salaries and Title I funding increases — passed through the COVID-19 relief bill that will be making its way through Congress.
“They might see this as their only chance in a while to get some of the rest of their items moved,” Petrilli said. “[Biden] might not have an opportunity on the spending front for a while, probably until the budget bills are ready from a year from now.”
Jury split on whether Biden will benefit or harm school choice
Although some have said Biden was “aggressively” against school choice, others disagree on what exactly his win means for education reformers.
Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in a statement the organization is “counting on the incoming Biden-Harris administration” to support public charter schools and provide parents with flexibility following “significant enrollment spikes” in light of the pandemic.
But American Federation for Children President John Schilling said in an email to Education Dive that while the Trump administration increased federal charter school spending by over $100 million, that will likely not be the case in a Biden White House, which may only show “modest charter school support.”
Biden’s and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’ opposition to vouchers, tax credit scholarships or education savings accounts to support tuition payments at nonpublic schools puts them at odds with a number of key constituencies in the Democratic Party, including Latinos, African Americans and millennials, Schilling said.
“A Biden presidency offers a pretty big dichotomy,” added Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, which closely tracks school opportunity. While Biden favored national teachers unions on one hand to pave his road to the White House, Allen said, educational opportunity rather than traditional public schooling “increased its foothold” in the states and in Congress this election. “That’s going to be his challenge.”
Schilling added: “Republicans will have to fight [to] expand educational choice at the federal level and use their bully pulpits to offset the influence of the teachers’ unions.”
But Petrilli said despite his track record for being “more antagonistic to charter schools than any other presidential candidate,” Biden could still be better for school choice than the Trump administration.
“We are going to be able to have a more constructive conversation around education reform again,” Petrilli said. “It’s been very hard for the last four years,” he added, saying those in the center and left “got blasted for being linked with Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos” if they supported school choice matters.
“Trump promoting school choice was not good for school choice; you need bipartisan consensus and that was just impossible given Trump’s tone and rhetoric,” Petrilli said.
Nevertheless, Allen added, “It’s going to be harder to get your message across ... and frankly some people are even afraid that [the new administration] might be vengeful and start launching investigations.”
Caution abounds for increased funds for traditional schools
Many organizations, including NSBA and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, have emphasized long-term changes around internet connectivity, modernizing education to prepare students for the workforce, and teacher recruitment and retention — all policy priorities during the Biden campaign.
However, with a Republican-controlled Senate, Petrilli expects Biden to face an uphill climb.
“A lot of Biden’s plan for education and in other areas won’t go anywhere or he won't be able to carry them out as boldly as he would have liked,” Petrilli said. He added Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) “would be open to do some negotiating,” and he expects public education funding to increase more than it would have under Trump.
“There will be partisan fights but we tend to pull better in a crisis,” Slaven said. “This is a tipping point moment for all, not just public schools, and so that is what I will hope they focus on.”
Special educators hope for full funding of IDEA
Many in the special education community are hopeful a Biden administration will advocate for fully funding the additional costs of serving students with disabilities — or about a $30 billion increase for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“We’ve been so far behind on the federal contribution. It would be great if that number could increase,” said Stephanie Smith Lee, who served as director of the Office of Special Education Programs from 2002-2005 and is a member of the 43 Alumni for Biden group, referring to political appointees from George W. Bush’s administration.
Lee said she also hopes the next secretary of education has an interest in people with disabilities.
“For families of students with disabilities and for students with disabilities, it’s been an ongoing effort to focus on improved academic achievement and outcomes,” said Lee. “Strategies that are good practices for students with disabilities, such as universal design for learning, are good for all students.”
The Council of Administrators of Special Education, in a statement sent to Education Dive by Executive Director Phyllis Wolfram, expressed hope the new administration will consider maintaining public funds within public education, addressing mental health issues for all children through school and community collaboration, and ensuring federal funding covers 40% of the additional costs of providing services to students with disabilities.
“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on students and teachers, we need to be sure we provide the funding and support needed for continued implementation of [a free, appropriate public education] under these challenging circumstances,” the CASE statement said.
However, Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for advocacy and governance at AASA, doesn’t think the administration will be able to move far-left agenda items, like full IDEA funding, through Congress.
“But I think if we convince them to do a sizable increase [to IDEA], that’s a step in the right direction,” she said, adding “there’s room to have a conversation about investing in education.”
Civil rights ‘ping-pong’ policy reversal on the horizon
Organizations on the right and left expect a Biden administration to reverse many of the civil rights changes that took place under Trump.
Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance, convened by the National Center for Youth Law, said she would like to see more attention focused on vulnerable students and the prevention of discriminatory practices. “We need to use this COVID crisis as a turnaround opportunity for education for the most marginalized students — we can make schools more equitable and caring for our students,” Rollin said.
In that vein, Petrilli said he expects Biden to “get right to work” on reversals of Trump’s school discipline guidance, as well as the new Title IX rule. However, whether Biden reverts to Obama’s policies or preserves parts of DeVos’ efforts in those areas remains to be seen.
“I’m sure [districts] feel like they’re being whipsawed or watching a game of ping-pong,” he said of the drastic changes that may come with an administration change.
Would a complete reversal of Trump-era policies be helpful for districts? Some don’t think so.
“As problematic or controversial as those actions were by Betsy DeVos, that doesn’t necessarily mean that every single change she made was horrible,” Ellerson Ng said. “If it was just a matter of completely reversing everything Betsy did just for the sake of undoing what Betsy did, that’s not much more prudent.”