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What Can We Expect for Education with a Biden-Harris Administration?

This blog post is written by AACTE consultant Jane West and is intended to provide updated information. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

Welcome to the world of President-elect Joe Biden and VP-elect Kamala Harris.

What Might a Biden Presidency Mean for Education?

When President-elect Joe Biden told the nation that educators will have “one of their own” in the White House, a sigh of relief and a whiff of optimism were palpable among the education community. Referring to his wife, Jill Biden—a long time community college professor—he also said that “teaching isn’t just what she does, it’s who she is.”  Thus, the president-elect sets the tone for the next four years of one of the most pro-education administrations in our lifetimes.

Biden named his transition teams this week, including the one for education. Led by Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and former head of the Obama Administration education transition team, the group is comprised of a number of former Obama appointees as well as union leaders. The team is working on compiling both potential nominees for political positions in the Department of Education as well as fleshing out policy priorities and a timeline. 

Speculation abounds regarding who is likely to be the next Secretary of Education. Biden has indicated that he will be naming a former public school teacher as his Secretary of Education, though he did not specify whether from the PK-12 or higher education sector.  Historically, the secretary usually comes from the PK-12 sector, though there are others, such as former governors as well as Sec. DeVos who has no education qualifications at all.  Recommendations have been issued by multiple entities. One name which appears to be out of the running is Linda Darling-Hammond, who has said she wants to continue her work as the head of the California Board of Education.  Both Lily Eskelsen Garcia and Randi Weingarten, leaders of the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers, respectively, have appeared on a number of lists.  Other lists include local school superintendents and community college presidents. Former Secretary of Education under President Obama, John King, has been mentioned as well as Rep. Jahana Hayes, 2016 National Teacher of the Year and a member of Congress from Connecticut. A recent Op-Ed made a strong case for a woman of color, noting that for the 41 years since the position has been established, it has been held by a white man for 24 of those years. Eleven individuals in total have served as Secretary of Education. 

A further consideration for the position is who might and might not make it through a Senate confirmation process, particularly if the Senate is controlled by Republicans. While the unions clearly have a lot to say about who might be nominated, the candidacy of leaders of the unions might not be the most likely to survive a confirmation process in the Senate. 

The Biden-Harris team has detailed outlines of their policy priorities for education and they continue to be fleshed out.  First up will be addressing the COVID crisis with comprehensive and substantial support for both PK-12 and higher education. There will be multiple changes/eliminations of guidance and executive orders and regulations undertaken by DeVos to change Obama Administration policy. A number of executive orders are expected on day one from the new president, including a reinstatement of the policy to allow dreamers (those brought to the United States illegally as children) to remain in the country. A number of higher education policies are slated to be reversed or revisited including the controversial Title IX regulations, which are making their way through court challenges. In the PK-12 arena, guidance on transgender students and regulations addressing disproportionality in discipline are on the list for reinstatement. Significant increases in funding for IDEA and Title I have been promised as well as free community college and increased forgiveness of student loan debt. An enhanced civil rights enforcement effort and a deeper investment in HBCUs and MSIs are also anticipated. In addition, the Department of Education will need rebuilding. It has been reported that the Department has lost over 13% of jobs and multiple openings are on the books. 

There is considerable speculation about the extent to which a Biden education agenda will differ from an Obama education agenda. At the heart of policy concern is the use of standardized tests for multiple accountability purposes (evaluating teachers, determining failing schools, evaluating teacher preparation programs), which was championed by Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and promoted by education reform groups such as Democrats for Education Reform.  The Duncan regime also supported Charter Schools and an accelerated utilization of Common Core, which led to backlash against “federal standards.”  In 2014, the NEA called for Duncan’s resignation unless he changed policy. The makeup of the transition team includes several Obama era players; however, the leadership of Linda Darling-Hammond and the inclusion of union leaders, as well as the leadership of First Lady-to-be Jill Biden (a long-time NEA member), indicate a shift in priorities with a unifying focus on equity across the board. 

Read the full Washington Update on my website for more information and remember to follow me on twitter @janewestdc.

I hope you and your families are well as we head into the holiday season. Be safe and take good care!


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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant