Throughout his campaign, President-elect Joe Biden touted his wife, Jill Biden, as an educator in addition to his support of the nation’s major teacher unions. In his victory speech, the former vice president again highlighted that support and his wife’s experience, saying, “For America’s educators, this is a great day: You’re going to have one of your own in the White House, and Jill is going to make a great First Lady.”
But the K-12 landscape is still murky. Some speculate Biden will quickly overturn many of President Donald Trump’s education policies, while others hope he’ll take the middle road between the polarized policies of his predecessor and those of former President Barack Obama.
In an interview with the Education Writers Association, the Biden campaign’s national policy director, Stef Feldman, touched on major K-12 policy points for the incoming administration. While she declined to divulge details in some areas, like whether the new administration will consider blanket waivers for federally mandated assessments in 2020-21, which Trump decided to continue, Feldman detailed Biden’s plans for school coronavirus responses and more.
Nevertheless, Democrat Biden will likely face an uphill battle in the Senate, which will have at least 50 Republicans next year, for some K-12 items that require congressional support.
5-step coronavirus response
Biden’s platform hinged in part on his coronavirus response, which he said begins with schools reopening. He has previously stressed local decision-making in concert with general federal guidance, and said he would create a Safer Schools Best Practices Clearinghouse.
Building on that, Feldman said schools in areas with high COVID-19 infection rates “should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts.” Instead, she said schools “need clear, simple guidance that is executable” and detailed a five-step plan:
- Getting the virus under control, which Includes nationwide mask mandates and having in place personal protective equipment (PPE) and contact tracing.
- Introducing national safety guidelines, which would be based on science to help navigate local decision-making.
- Providing emergency school funding, which would be “really specific,” Feldman said. Suggested use cases could include funding for plexiglass barriers, lunch deliveries instead of cafeteria gatherings, additional teachers to keep class sizes small and ventilation improvements.
- Boosting remote learning so it is “high quality.”
- Closing the COVID-19 education gap, because “many children are falling behind,” Feldman said.
School PPE funding
Under the Trump administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has limited reimbursements for schools, saying it will no longer cover the cost of cloth masks or other personal protective equipment. Lawmakers and school district leaders have urged FEMA to reconsider its policy as schools, already on thin budgets, grapple with increased COVID-19 costs.
Feldman said under a Biden presidency, FEMA would be required to help pay for cloth masks and other PPE for school settings. “Vice President Biden made clear that … he would direct FEMA to make sure that our K-12 schools get full access to disaster relief and emergency assistance funds under the Stafford Act,” Feldman said. The Robert T. Stafford Act provides the legal authority for the federal government to provide assistance to states during major disasters and emergencies.
Police in schools
After protests over the police-involved deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, many schools reconsidered their relationships with local police departments and school resource officers. Feldman said “if there are police in schools, the first thing we need to do is make sure that they are trained to work directly with students and be around students to make sure that it is not contributing to any pipelines that might lead students out of school and into prisons.”
Feldman also pivoted to the importance of students’ boosting mental health and said it is “the fundamental thing we need to do to make our schools safer,” saying Biden would push to double the number of school mental health professionals.
SEL grant programs
Social-emotional learning has been stressed as an effective method to prevent school violence and bolster a positive school climate by ensuring students feel physically and emotionally safe. For students’ social emotional well-being, Feldman said Biden would support the launch of a grant program to encourage states and tribal schools to develop evidence-based policy solutions around SEL.
“It also includes supporting community schools, which … work with families, students, educators and community organizations to identify families’ unmet needs and then develop a plan to leverage community resources to address those need,” she said.
Charter school accountability
Biden has taken a hard-line stance against school choice measures that include for-profit charters, private school vouchers and other measures that use public funding for non-public options. Feldman said the president-elect would “stop funding for charter schools that don’t provide results” in addition to requiring school boards to oversee charters.
“That means things like regular public board meetings and meeting all the same civil rights, employment, health, labor, safety and educator requirements that public schools must,” Feldman said. While she didn’t define what “results” charters would have to show, she said setting standards and rules would be “an important priority” for the beginning of Biden’s term.