The Education Writers Association hosted a webinar on October 22 featuring Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s national policy director, during which she discussed the many big plans President-elect Joe Biden has for education.
Mr Biden rolled out a sweeping education agenda, from the earliest years through college and beyond. It has previously been reported in major news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times. The man who will be this nation’s 46th president has also been critical of President Trump’s approach to school reopening and developed a “road map to reopening schools safely” amid the pandemic.
Coronavirus takes the lead
“If you had asked me eight months ago to write talking points for this conversation,” Ms Feldman began her remarks, “I would have talked about how [Mr Biden] is going to invest in our public schools and support our educators and give them the resources they need in order to succeed. … But, it’s not eight months ago.”
It sure isn’t. The pandemic has completely changed the daily course of activity in the nation’s schools, so “first things first,” she said.
“President Trump’s failure to get this virus under control and his failure to have a plan to support our public schools and our educators during this time has led us to a place where we have a fundamentally disrupted education system and life has been made harder for tens of millions of hard-working Americans.”
Mr Biden’s plan for reopening schools, she said, would include:
- listening to science
- nationwide mask mandate (encouragement—a federal mandate couldn’t work)
- ensuring schools have personal protective equipment
- contact tracing
- national safety guidelines guided by science
- empowering local decision-making for the safe reopening of schools
The president-elect, she said, would direct experts at the CDC to draft simple, clear guidance for keeping students and educators safe as schools reopen. “It would recognize that this situation is different in different communities, depending on how much of a viral load there is in a community and what resources are available,” she said. “We need to recognize local expertise on the ground and empower local decision-making.”
Recommitment to civil rights
Ms Feldman said Mr Biden is committed to rescinding some of the rollbacks the Trump administration made to civil rights rules, especially those for victims of sexual assault and transgender students. Mr Biden, she pointed out, has a long history of work on Title IX, which guarantees equal access to educational opportunities regardless of a student’s gender.
In addition, the president-elect’s plan would strengthen funding for historically black colleges and universities and for minority-serving institutions. This new support, some $70 billion, would target graduate schools at these institutions and could help them create incubators or research hubs that would build a sort of pipeline for minority teachers. The hope here is that fostering minority teacher training will reduce the gap that now exists between the percentage of minority students in the population and the percentage of minority teachers in our schools, who serve as role models for those students.
On top of pumping funds into HBCUs and MSIs, Ms Feldman said Mr Biden is also strongly committed to providing resources for schools serving our poorest communities. He would triple Title I funding in his education plan, she said, which would be a start. Then, after minority teachers start working, the goal would be to keep them teaching, and that, Mr Biden hopes, could be assisted by increasing teacher pay and, specifically, providing professional incentives for teachers to serve as mentors to other teachers.
Wrap-around services and mental health
Asked about police in schools to keep students safe, Ms Feldman said Mr Biden fundamentally believes that if police do work in schools, they should certainly be trained to work directly with students and to be around students. They shouldn’t contribute to a “pipeline” out of school and into prison.
“But I think, stepping back,” she continued, Mr Biden “believes that the fundamental thing we need to do to make our schools safer is investing in the mental health of our students.”
And because of that, the president-elect’s education plan includes funds to double the number of mental health professionals in schools. Many schools today, especially those in poorer communities, don’t even have a school nurse, let alone a mental health professional.
And that was even true last year. Other gaps are widening and student problems being made worse by the pandemic of 2020 and the separation of students from their teachers and classrooms.
“The fifth part of the Biden plan for school reopening,” she said, “is to start thinking now about how we close what Biden has called the Covid-19 education gap—despite all the amazing efforts by parents and educators, so many children are falling behind due to remote learning. We need to start thinking now about how we help them catch up, so that it doesn’t follow them throughout their lives.”
Mr Biden’s wife, Jill, is a public school educator, and Ms Feldman said the president-elect plans to appoint someone with public school experience as secretary of education. He also plans to stop the flow of federal funding to for-profit charters.
Mr Biden “fundamentally believes that if they aren’t doing right by our students, they shouldn’t be getting rich by taking advantage of our kids,” she said of for-profit charter schools. “He would also, for nonprofit charters, stop funding for charter schools that don’t provide results. He believes we shouldn’t be wasting the scarce resources that our public schools need so badly.”
The president-elect is committed to “traditional public neighborhood schools,” which “educate the vast majority of students in this country,” she said. “And there’s a huge deficit in terms of the funding they need versus the funding they have.”
Instead of “fanning the flames of hate and division,” Ms Feldman said Mr Biden would invest in children “starting from birth”: His multipart plan would include “working with states to enact universal pre-school, increasing educator pay, making community college and job training free, expanding access to 4-year colleges and universities.”
Economy of our communities
Finally, Ms Feldman addressed the near-universal problem of run-down school facilities and schools that are either unsafe or do not provide an environment conducive to learning in the 21st century.
“American school facilities get a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers; we need A+ schools in this country,” she said. “Our students and our educators deserve that.”
The plan to modernize and redesign the nation’s schools, part of Mr Biden’s huge infrastructure plan, would invest $100 billion in school modernization and could benefit both schools and the communities they serve.
The first priority would be to address any health risks in existing school buildings.
“That was even before the coronavirus,” she said. “We’re talking about health risks, such as air or water being contaminated, because going to school or working in a school should never make anyone sick. And then additional funding would be used to build cutting-edge, energy-efficient, innovative schools with technology and labs to prepare our students for the jobs of the future.”
Mr Biden, she said, would work quickly to enact his agenda on infrastructure, as it carries his hope of pulling the nation out of the economic recession and getting people back to work.
“There are a lot of good jobs to be filled … redesigning and modernizing our public schools,” she said. “We can have a win-win here: We can invest in modernizing our public schools to create jobs, and also provide a safer environment for our students and our educators, which they deserve.”