As the 2020 presidential race nears Election Day, the proposed education policies of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden could have a significant impact on K-12 education. In recent years, districts have dealt with a kind of “whiplash” of pendulating policies and guidance on everything from Title IX and immigration practices to school discipline policies, accompanying administration and party changes. 

The candidates in this election cycle, while contrasting in some areas like Title I funding and school reopening strategies, also have track records of supporting some of the same initiatives.

Coronavirus response

President Donald Trump

Trump has been vocal about his desire to have a viable vaccine by the end of 2020 and a return to “normalcy” in 2021. He has demanded schools return to in-person learning, saying in the last debate with Biden on Oct. 22: “I want to open the schools. The transmittal rate to the teachers is very small. I want to open the schools. We have to open our country.”

To promote the full reopening of schools, Trump has touted the $13 billion dedicated in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stability (CARES) Act for school, which can fund a broad array of school reopening efforts, including the purchase of personal protective equipment. The president has also advocated for another $70 billion to help schools bring K-12 students back on campuses.


Former Vice President Joe Biden

Biden included reopening schools and child care programs as “the single most important step” to getting parents, and the economy, back to work. His plan would increase funds for Title I schools to cover costs of PPE, cleaning and sanitation, changing school schedules and class sizes, and strengthening distance learning infrastructure. 

A detailed plan the candidate released in July emphasized local decision-making, while also setting national guidelines around infection rates necessary to safely resume, or delay, in-person instruction. This is different from recent months, during which states have varied drastically in their reopening guidelines, according to reports.

He is also pushing for $200 billion in emergency funding in the next federal aid package, saying in the last debate on Oct. 22 that schools “need a lot of money to be open.”

Equity in education

President Donald Trump

The most prominent education platform in Trump’s first term that he promises to carry into a second is the expansion of school choice. It has been the only K-12 education issue he has raised in his State of Union addresses, saying this on Feb. 4: “For too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.” 

But the signature legislation to create a $5 billion annual federal tax credit to help parents pay for private school tuition or other education-related expenses has laid dormant in Congress since its introduction in 2019. The COVID-19 crisis offered the administration renewed momentum to advocate for school choice expansion, which it said would benefit marginalized students at-risk of falling further behind if their public schools don’t open to in-person learning, according to a fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Education.  

Regarding funding for public schools, Trump proposed consolidating existing K-12 formula and competitive grant programs into one block grant to states, called the Elementary and Secondary Education for the Disadvantaged Block Grant in his FY 2021 budget plan. The change would give states and localities more flexibility to spend federal funds, the administration said, but some organizations said it was an attempt to limit federal contributions.

Former Vice President Joe Biden

Biden plans to triple Title I funding “to close that gap between the rich and the poor” and “root out” inequities in the education system, he said during a town hall with the National Education Association. He would also tie some of those funds to increased teacher pay. According to an analysis by the American Action Forum, that would increase the current $16.3 billion in funding to $48 billion for Title I. His plan also includes fully funding IDEA and expanding community schools offering wraparound services.

While Trump has alleged Biden plans to end school choice, a Biden campaign statement provided to Politifact says the candidate is only against funding private schools with public money and the Trump administration’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. He isn’t opposed, however, to “districts letting parents choose to send their children to public magnet schools, high-performing public charters or traditional public schools,” the statement said, adding he would like to see greater charter accountability.

During the primaries, Biden came under fire for opposing federally-mandated busing meant to desegregate schools in the 1970s. 

Early childhood education

President Donald Trump

Although Trump has said very little publicly about his personal views on how to improve child care and early childhood education programs, behind-the-scenes efforts to increase funding for projects supporting young children have made headway in the last few years. For example, the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget includes a one-time $1 billion investment to encourage employer investments in child care.

Final budget agreements in the past few years have increased federal funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, Head Start, Early Head Start and the Preschool Development Grant programs. However, the president’s FY 2021 budget proposes level funding for those programs and recommends elimination of the Preschool Development Grant.

Former Vice President Joe Biden

The former Delaware senator has emphasized investing in high-quality, universal pre-K, especially for traditionally marginalized communities, as a way to close the achievement gap and better compensate early childhood educators.

In line with this, Biden previously cosponsored legislation that would require pre-K providers to target and offer services free-of-charge to families at or below 200% of the poverty line, and also concentrated efforts on reaching families from low-income and English Language Learner backgrounds.

His plan hinges on introducing early childhood education to parents through healthcare centers, especially those in areas with a high number of Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program recipients, and expanding home visiting. As part of a $775 billion 10-year plan around teacher training, compensation, and retention, Biden plans to increase pay for early childhood educators

Pathways to college

President Donald Trump

A four-year college degree should not be the only postsecondary option high school students consider, Trump, a business owner and the former star of the TV show “The Apprentice,” said early in his term. In an effort to reform what Trump called ineffective education and workforce development programs, he signed an executive order in 2017 expanding pathways to apprenticeships, which he said could lead to secure, high-paying jobs. 

His FY 2021 budget proposal also calls for increasing funding for Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs by $900 million. Additionally, Trump signed bipartisan legislation in 2018 updating the education department’s CTE program to promote job training in secondary and postsecondary schools.

“This critical legislation is modernizing and increasing access to career and technical education programs, providing students and workers with the necessary training that will strengthen our Nation’s economic competitiveness,” said Trump in a statement marking Career and Technical Education Month in February.

Former Vice President Joe Biden

Biden has also emphasized career and technical education for middle and high-schoolers, noting the importance of building skills in computer science, the arts and music and the connection this programming has to school engagement. He plans to strengthen vocational training and student certification by facilitating partnerships between schools, universities and employers, and also by allowing the Pell grant to be used for high school dual enrollment programs.  

Other education initiatives

President Donald Trump

The Trump administration has attempted — and in some cases failed —  to rescind or delay Obama-era school-related guidance. School discipline guidance from 2014 was withdrawn because the administration said it overstepped local control and decision-making. Guidance issued in 2016 promoting access to sex-segregated facilities on school campuses based on gender identity was also rescinded.

The administration also attempted to stall implementation of a 2016 rule that required school districts to use a standard methodology when measuring significant disproportionally in special education. The rule was enacted as planned after advocates won a court challenge against the Department of Education to stop the delay.

The largest piece of education regulation from Trump’s term was the update to the Title IX rule, which the administration said would hold schools more accountable for responding to and investigating allegations of sexual misconduct. Opponents, however, criticized the rule, saying it didn’t go far enough to protect victims of sexual harassment. One legal attempt to block the rule failed. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden

Biden has been a strong critic of the Department of Education, saying he “can’t wait” for the “chance to replace Betsy DeVos” and will choose someone with classroom experience to take her place as secretary of education.

“This is going to be a teacher-oriented Department of Education,” he said while speaking to the National Education Association, “and it’s not going to come from the top down, it’s going to come from the teachers up.” 

He has also criticized the Trump administration’s legislative response to the COVID-19 crisis, saying he will work to balance budgets if elected. He has also pointed to the recovery from the Great Recession under the Obama administration, during which reporting by The New York Times showed a chunk of the $84 billion stimulus saved jobs in schools.

“Making sure educator’s salaries don’t get cut and educators don’t get fired” would be his priority during this crisis, too, he said.

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