How might current national crises affect the Biden administration’s plans for education? Educational equity policy experts share their predictions and concerns.
January 15, 2021
This is the first article of a two-part series about the Biden administration’s goals for education and the potential impact of those plans.
President-elect Joe Biden will enter office at a moment of multiple national crises. He and his administration will have to contend with the coronavirus pandemic, the struggle against racism and white supremacy, and ongoing threats of violence following the attempted insurrection in the U.S. Capitol.
These crises are yet another reminder of the deep need to rebuild a country that centers the needs, hopes, and aspirations of people of all identities, races, ethnicities, and income levels. And nowhere is this more urgent than in our education system, where the coronavirus is threatening to further widen opportunity gaps between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers.
Biden’s education transition team faces all of these challenges as it plans to pivot on the past four years of education policy. To learn more, we spoke with four educational equity policy experts to hear about the Biden team’s top priorities, the significance of proposing Miguel Cardona as the next education secretary, and the potential challenges that the president-elect faces along the way in this unique moment.
- Bijan Verlin (Greater Philadelphia ‘14), former education policy fellow for the office of Senator Brian Schatz in Washington, D.C.
- Michael Rady (New Jersey ‘13), former education policy fellow for Senator Cory Booker and former field organizer for the Amy McGrath for Senate campaign in Bowling Green, Kentucky
- Rebecca Planchard (Dallas - Fort Worth ‘11), senior early childhood policy advisor for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services
- Reginald White (Memphis ‘17), external relations manager at The Education Trust and former policy fellow for House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries in Washington, D.C.
This month, rioters—including members of known hate groups—attacked the U.S. Capitol. How could this event change Biden’s planned education policies, especially when it comes to supporting the needs of students of color?
Planchard: The attempted coup was devastating to watch unfold on live TV. I was in tears. And I know that so many of our children were watching too. Teachers all over the country were forced to, once again, swallow their own trauma to address their students' needs and questions. I hope that the incoming administration provides clear position statements, policy supports, and monetary incentives to states to take action to revamp how American history—including modern history—is taught in our public schools.
How we teach the history of our country must be centered around race, utilizing relevant and accessible primary sources. My own education is a perfect example of our side-stepping racial history in our country: I didn't learn about the Wilmington, North Carolina, coup of 1898, where a murderous riot of white supremacists killed dozens of Black residents and destroyed Black elected leaders' successful government, until after I graduated from college. Jan. 6, 2021 was not our country's first attempted coup. We will better serve today's students, future leaders in America, when we confront our racial divisions head-on.
Verlin: You might see a greater push for civics education—and a more inclusive one at that. Especially in the age of misinformation, there are louder and louder voices calling for the prioritization of civics education. One would hope that a new civics curriculum, or funding for it, would more accurately center the histories of indigenous people and people of color.
Rady: The recent white supremacist insurrection, incited by President Trump, centers attention on the starkly different types of policing applied to white people and to people of color in this country. This brings increased urgency for President-elect Biden to leverage the Justice Department to investigate and root out systemic police misconduct, including among school police officers, as well as police officer participation in white supremacist hate groups.
The racist iconography and violence on display last week also heightened the need for the Biden administration to address the sharp rise in hate crimes over the previous years. Hate crimes have escalated in schools and on college campuses, disproportionately targeting Black students.
The Biden administration should act on this issue by prioritizing hate crimes for federal prosecution, rescinding the Trump administration executive order that banned federal grantees (such as universities) from running diversity training, and increasing funding for counseling services at schools and colleges, especially for students of color.
Based on the decisions that the president-elect and his transition team have made around education, what seem to be the top education priorities for this administration?
Planchard: COVID is obviously top of mind. It has to be for everyone. It just is the reality of what our public schools are facing right now. No. 1 is opening our schools as safely as possible. I couldn't agree with that more. It's certainly been our philosophy in North Carolina. We believe that, and we know that in-person learning is absolutely essential, especially for our youngest learners.
However, the end goal is not just getting buildings open; we have to acknowledge the collective trauma that all of us have experienced, especially our kids. Everyone's normal is gone. We must do everything we can to mitigate the impact of that trauma and to respond to it through trained supportive school counselors and social workers as well as training teachers to better support social-emotional well-being and to care for themselves and their social-emotional well-being.
All of that has to be top of mind, and that seems to be where President-elect Biden and his team are headed as well.
White: Top of mind for the Biden administration, and for all of us in the education policy arena, is how to beat this devastating virus and safely and responsibly reopen schools that deliver equitable, high-quality instruction. The administration’s school reopening plan must be grounded in science and public health, include strategies for prioritizing educators into vaccine distribution, and dedicate significant investments to testing and contact tracing. This agenda must be multitiered, while also providing states with robust funding, guidance, and resources to address lost instructional time that so many of our students are experiencing.
Beyond these critical first steps, the administration is prioritizing the reinstatement and expansion of policy guidance, rules, and practices that combat systemic racism and affirm critical civil rights protections for students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and other marginalized groups. Given the global pandemic, our national social climate and their impacts on whole-child well-being and mental health, there is a unique opportunity for the Biden team to improve access to both school-based and wraparound services and professionals such as nurses, psychologists, counselors, social workers, and others who help our students thrive.
“Top of mind for the Biden administration, and for all of us in the education policy arena, is how to beat this devastating virus and safely and responsibly reopen schools that deliver equitable, high-quality instruction.”
In December, President-elect Biden announced his pick for secretary of education: Miguel Cardona, the chief of Connecticut’s public schools and a former public school educator. What is the impact of this decision?
Rady: Given Secretary-designee Cardona's record in Connecticut, as well as his own compelling personal story—having moved from Puerto Rico to Connecticut as a child, living in public housing—I have real faith that he will implement the policies and investments that will help bring our schools back from COVID-19 and advance equity along lines of race and class for students.
Planchard: My understanding is that he has been a leader who has prioritized schools reopening in person during COVID and doing it as safely as possible, which, to me, is exactly aligned to everything we've been talking about. We have to get our kids learning in person from teachers who are well. It seems to be a priority that he's demonstrated himself in education leadership.
The other thing that I want to highlight is, I'm a former bilingual educator and I've made an effort to be an ally to our Latinx communities across North Carolina, throughout the pandemic. Something that we've been paying very close attention to is our data on disproportionate rates of infection among our Latinx children, parents, and grandparents. Having a person who is Latino in this high office setting our education priorities for the country, it excites me and gives me hope for what can be possible for all of our Latinx children across the country, especially in North Carolina.
How challenging do you think it will be for the Biden administration to pivot after the past four years of education policy, and how long could that take?
Rady: I think that's a really important thing for us to be talking about. The first thing to say is that there are some things that Secretary-designee Cardona and the Biden administration can do on Day One and that the Biden administration has said that they will do right away.
The first thing is restoring the Obama-era civil rights guidance that has been rescinded by Secretary (Betsy) DeVos that would allow trans students to use the school bathroom in line with their gender identity, that would address disproportionate disciplining of Black students, and also issuing guidance that presses for diversity in colleges and K-12 classrooms. These guidance documents can be restored without going through the regulatory process, or enacted into law, and can happen right away.
There are other priorities that will take more time. One of the hurdles that they'll face is that the Education Department under Secretary DeVos has been gutted on the career side and there are so many career positions that should be filled but are unoccupied.
What does it feel like in policy circles and on the Hill right now?
White: Following the horrendous acts of insurrection and sedition in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, there’s still a collective sense of shock that is felt by all policy and advocacy professionals connected to the Hill. As a former policy staffer in House leadership, I walked those hallowed halls and navigated the winding corridors of our nation’s seat of government every day in service to our democracy. To see it come under attack—both physically and symbolically—by rioters, conspiracy theorists, and white supremacists unwilling to accept the will of the American people—was one of the most horrific experiences of my professional life.
However, our nation and its democracy has time and time again proven its resilience under fire, and I believe there is a prevailing hope and renewed dedication to moving forward. I find comfort in hearing leaders from many corners calling out these egregious acts. With the imminent shift in the White House, the political composition of the Senate, and elevated national conversations around equity, access, and inclusion, there is fertile ground and real opportunity for much-needed policy reforms, especially those that extend increased opportunity to communities far too often left behind.
Verlin: When it comes to education, the critical thing right now is the COVID pandemic. We're having a K-shaped recovery in which some people are doing better and better economically, and the majority of working people are struggling immensely. Nowhere is that more clear than in education. If you're a teacher, if you're a principal, if you're working on policy, you're just sitting there and trying to think, "What can we do about this?"
When you think about what's happening in policy circles, the question is, how do we put resources in people's hands, and how do schools play a role in delivering those resources? Whether they're mental health resources, computers or Wi-Fi, or some new ed tech tool that's going to help bridge the gap that's happening because kids and families are struggling. We know when families struggle, kids struggle.
Planchard: What's interesting is that I live in this mixed policy space of health and education right now. What that has really felt like is just a lot of fear. I know that there is a lot of fear still among our educators. I know that there has been so much fear around not having adequate supplies, whether that's hand sanitizer or having enough cloth face coverings that fit really well.
I know that fear has been really persistent. With a new federal administration coming in, that fear hopefully can be changing over to hope and we can see our public school systems getting more resources to empower our educators and administrators to facilitate the type of learning that we all want for our kids.
I feel like the overall vibe right now across the country and education policy is fear and exhaustion and a tinge of hope on the horizon that we can get through this.
Part two of this two-part series will be published on Jan. 21 and will explore some of the education policies the Biden administration plans to pursue and the impact these policies could have on the lives of marginalized students.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. Opinions expressed by those interviewed in this story are solely their own and do not express the views or opinions of their past or present employers.
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