Biden Has New Progressive Education Rhetoric — But Policy Will Be the Test

As the education policy goals of the incoming Biden administration begin to crystallize, some overtures to public school advocates have appeared in Joe Biden’s platform and transition team roster. However, given his history of deference to private interests and the looming possibility of a Republican-controlled Senate, it’s far from apparent to what extent he may be willing or able to realize meaningful educational policy interventions.

The prevailing political climate has made it possible for Biden to form an alliance with teachers’ unions and profess a renewed commitment to public education. The reforms he proposes are far from a true social-democratic revitalization (like, say, Bernie Sanders’s proposals to make public universities free to all and cancel student debt by taxing Wall Street). Yet they’re still a marked improvement over the technocratic free-market tinkering usually on offer from Democrats — most notably that of Obama, who proved to be a literal standard-bearer for punitive testing and accountability measures, and, damningly, a charter school partisan. That said, any newfound civic-mindedness on Biden’s part may very well have been limited to the campaign trail, and progressive educators seeking to reverse neoliberal privatization cannot be certain that they’ll have this administration’s backing.

Lofty Ambitions — on Paper

The Biden campaign put forth a fairly extensive education platform that would triple Title I funding, with new funds specifically earmarked to raise teacher salaries. Other planks include doubling the number of school mental health professionals (counselors, psychologists and social workers), investing in teacher training, upgrading public school infrastructure and closing funding gaps for low-income districts and districts primarily comprising students of color. The program would expand community schools, early childhood development support and vocational education, implement sliding-scale child care and universal pre-kindergarten and dictate full federal funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also known as special education.

Biden’s plan for post-secondary support includes upping Pell grants for low-income and middle-class students, funding historically Black colleges and other “minority-serving institutions” and making two years of community college free — but only for “hard-working individuals,” a nebulous definition, implicit in which is some amount of means-testing (i.e., limiting program access to subsets of the population based on often-complex income or other criteria). The Biden platform is studded with liberal bromides like “innovative solutions,” “competitiveness” and “increasing affordability” that usually telegraph an underlying free-market logic. But if we have to stop short of fully tuition-free universal programs, these policies would at minimum improve many lives.

Chief among them is the call to “make public colleges and universities tuition-free for all families with incomes below $125,000,” in a watered-down version of the universal Bernie Sanders platform. Even in this diluted, means-tested form, free college for some would be a colossal improvement over the current usurious state of higher education. This and a number of the Biden plan’s more robust elements have their roots in the recommendations of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force. Pressure from the left has, as is often the case, broadened the ambitions of liberal reformists — or, at least, their stated ambitions.

Pandemic relief is of course at the forefront of educators’ concerns this year. The CARES Act already disbursed over $30 billion for K-12 and higher education assistance. Far more will be needed, and quickly, to support a safe return to school (though opinions vary on to what degree such a thing is even possible; unions and medical experts alike have urged strict caution). Trump, true to form, cruelly insisted on strong-arming schools by making relief funding contingent upon their reopening. Biden’s plan instead leaves reopening up to local districts while calling for clarification of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria, emergency relief packages and grants and passing the HEROES Act, which includes $58 billion for schools. All of this would come in the context of broader, desperately needed pandemic control measures. Unfortunately, the complexities of any education plan rollout will be compounded by the pressing needs imposed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Privateers

According to reporting by Politico, the Biden transition team is committed to installing a public school teacher atop the Department of Education. The secretary of education under the Trump administration, the widely despised Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire evangelical crusader and the sister of Academi (née Blackwater) founder Erik Prince. Virulently opposed to the very concept of public education, DeVos advocated for shunting public funding to charters and private religious schools; rescinded regulations on debt-trap, for-profit universities; opposed civil rights gains; and generally oversaw a shameless march toward austerity, privatization and profiteering. Egregiously, she tried to defund the Special Olympics, which was a bridge too far even for Trump.

Biden’s education transition team will not select the secretary or set major policies. Instead, team members are primarily charged with retooling the Department of Education to mitigate the damage dealt by DeVos’s crude ransacking. Linda Darling-Hammond, a longtime education expert and moderate who has voiced some charter school sympathies, is leading the team — not a surprising choice, given that she played the same role for President Obama in 2008. Darling-Hammond has recused herself from consideration for secretary of education in the Biden cabinet; potential picks include Lily Eskelsen García, a former middle school teacher who was, until recently, president of the National Education Association (NEA); and Randi Weingarten, former history teacher and president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Both the NEA and the AFT are powerful teachers’ unions and substantial Democratic donors that endorsed Biden’s candidacy; both have opposed aspects of school privatization, if not charter schools categorically. There are other possibilities, but whoever is appointed will certainly be an improvement over a slash-and-burn reactionary hack like DeVos.

Still, of the transition team of 20 experts, four are from unions. Most of the remainder played roles in the Department of Education during the Clinton or Obama administrations — both of which threw their weight behind charter schools and testing schemes, as did Bush in the interim. Obama’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top competitive grant initiative incentivized states to adopt new Common Core standards and expand charter schools in return for funding. (The Obama Department had extremely close ties to the pro-charter Gates Foundation, which bankrolled and was instrumental in the creation of the much-criticized Common Core.)

Obama also aligned with Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a right-wing political action committee funded by hedge fund managers and finance capitalists — free-market zealots who fetishize privatization and testing and have ties to DeVos. DFER applauded Obama’s appointment of Arne Duncan, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools (a position that in itself symbolizes the infusion of schools with business ideology), as education secretary over more union-friendly candidates. Duncan was, unsurprisingly, a staunch advocate of charters, as well as Common Core and standardized testing assessment systems. He was opposed by the NEA and AFT during his tenure. After Duncan stepped down in 2015, the DFER also endorsed his Obama-appointed replacement, John B. King Jr., who had presided over a disastrous standards implementation in New York.

Common Core and accountability measures like “value-added modeling” and other “test-and-punish” systems were used to withhold funding for schools based on poor test performance and yoke teacher jobs and compensation to student scores, continuing the logic of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind testing regime. The American Statistical Association has explained why such metrics are deeply flawed — yet the Obama administration insisted on pushing these methodologies far beyond their limits, likely because of their utility in rationalizing cuts and privatization. Later, the Obama Department of Education’s oversight of charter schools was condemned by its own auditors. The stage was set for DeVos’s even more flagrant giveaways.

Biden, as vice president, was not directly responsible for these policies, though he seems to have gone along with them tacitly. He had also in 1997 expressed an openness to publicly funded vouchers for private religious schools and to “increased competition,” the dubious assertion that struggling public schools can be coerced to perform better by making them square off against private schools for students and funding.

Still, a number of recent statements from Biden and his campaign seem to augur something of a departure from the longstanding bipartisan line. The Washington Post asked Biden Policy Director Stef Feldman if the president-elect would be “pivoting away from the Obama administration’s approach” on education. “It is certainly the Biden plan,” she responded. Speaking to the American Federation of Teachers and referring to charter schools, Biden said, “The bottom line is it siphons off money for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble.”

Biden spokesperson Matt Hill declared in a statement:

As president, Biden will ban for-profit charter schools from receiving federal funds. He will also make sure that we stop funding charter schools that don’t provide results. In addition, he will ensure that charter schools are held to the same levels of accountability and transparency as traditional public schools.

This language came almost directly from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendation. But it’s important to note that most charters are not explicitly for-profit, so the first line doesn’t mean a whole lot. Ostensibly nonprofit charters can still easily function as vehicles for diverting public money to private coffers. Hillary Clinton tried to pull off that same little dodge.

Maybe Biden will try to hew to his team’s assurances, however vague and hedging, that he will begin to leave Obama’s methods behind. The campaign has certainly tried to signal a new tone, repeatedly highlighting Jill Biden’s job as a community college professor as a guarantor of public-educational bona fides. (She’s also an NEA member.) This less adulatory stance on charter schools mirrors broader shifts among Democrats. Despite charter backers’ powerful lobbying and influence apparatus, public criticism of the model has been mounting, with numerous scandals involving profiteering and graft in the absence of state oversight, charter advocate claims being roundly debunked, and a growing body of research demonstrating the budgetary harm they inflict on public schools. Trump and DeVos’s clumsy zeal for charters has also made it far easier for Democrats to scramble to position themselves opposite. (Even Cory Booker has wavered a bit on his signature issue.) As a result, it’s a politically convenient time to align against them — and with the unions, who within the past two years have asserted their power in a spate of strikes, a key aspect of which was opposition to charters.

Teachers’ unions may exert some degree of sway in a Biden administration; he will at least owe them for their endorsements and campaign contributions. Still, although Biden has gone to great pains to style himself as a blue-collar “union man,” his pretense of friendliness to unions in general has been largely aesthetic and is contravened by his voting record. His conduct betrays a reflexive acquiescence to money and power. Teachers’ unions might wield a little more influence this time around, but a Biden administration’s action on education will be determined by how those forces converge and run up against the circumscribed horizons established by capital.

Beholden to Power

Joe Biden’s contradictions make perfect sense. His campaign promises may have taken on a progressive bent, placing him, putatively, to the left of most recent Democratic candidates (in no small part due to the influence of the Sanders movement). But these are rhetorical, not structural, obligations. Biden has compromised with Republicans at every turn. His contributions from Wall Street far exceeded Trump’s. In a show of fealty to credit companies that gave him hundreds of thousands, he played an enthusiastic role in creating the student loan crisis that he now purports to want to solve. On that front, he’s made a piddling offer of $10,000 in relief, only for private loans held by “economically distressed” borrowers — more of that means-testing so beloved by liberals.

Coming from a man who promises to “listen to scientists” and then refuses to ban fracking — from a man who has already tapped an oil industry shill as a climate liaison, a DuPont consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency, a defender of deportations and family separation for immigration and Big Tech executives for agency review teams — any kind of leftish pronouncements are highly suspect at best. A massive uptick in social expenditures like Biden’s education platform will be anathema to the ownership class. When capital demands austerity cuts and corporate bailouts, Biden’s record indicates that he’s likely to oblige. All his promises must be considered in light of his indebtedness to power.

So, the tonal shifts this year are wholly explicable: Biden is adept at unfurling policies and statements to harness political winds that have, so far, repeatedly swept him to power. While he may have been blown gently to the left in the recent campaign, his most consistent defining principle is an anchorage to the bedrock of capital. The divide between his rhetoric and his record is easily reconcilable when factoring in that constraint.

As a result, there aren’t too many conclusions that can be drawn from his current slate of promises. If enacted, the platform would be a genuine boon to American schooling, and the transition team’s composition does seem to signify at least an entertainment of the union perspective. But the fact that the team contains so many Clinton and Obama officials might also portend a continuation of the neoliberal education disruption that’s been underway for several successive administrations. If Biden does, somehow, stand up to capital and push for real reform, reversing DeVos’s trampling of the educational commons will not be enough. He would have to undo the damage wrought by the administration in which he so proudly served as vice president.

Given the coronavirus pandemic, an economic recession, a slim House majority and the chance of a Republican Senate, these policies, even if pursued to the fullest, will face towering obstacles. Some on the right are salivating over the possibility that Biden might crumple very easily indeed. An article from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a pro-charter conservative think tank, speculates with some relish on how Biden could be swayed; the author suspects that he is not a “hardened ideological foe” of charter schools but rather a politician adept at assuaging various stakeholders. Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union — a Walton-funded anti-union front group — was quoted in The Washington Post: “I’m grateful it’s just a platform and it’s not the actual work that I think Joe Biden will do if he’s elected president,” she said. “Pandering to the teachers’ unions and giving them what they want and making sure they feel like they are running things is what you need to do to win it, and so that’s what he’s doing to win it.”

We’ll see if she’s right.