If you have paid attention to education policy issues for the past decade or so, you probably noticed the rather large irony in former vice president Joe Biden’s comments in Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate about “local control."
The issue arose during a heated exchange between Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Biden when she challenged him on his stance decades ago against busing programs to desegregate schools. (See transcript below.)
Harris told him that she had been part of a busing program aimed at integrating the public school system in Berkeley, Calif., and then she asked him if he thinks he was wrong to oppose busing.
He replied that it wasn’t busing he opposed, but, rather, busing “ordered by the Department of Education.” He then said that the Berkeley busing project was a decision made by local officials, and therefore was “a local decision." His suggestion was that such decisions should not be made by the federal government.
But back when Biden was making his arguments against busing as a junior senator from Delaware, the Education Department did not yet exist as an independent Cabinet-level department. It was created in 1979 under the Department of Education Organization Act, signed by President Jimmy Carter. But even as an office within the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, it never attempted to force school districts to bus students.
(In the 1970s, some school districts were ordered, mostly by courts, to institute busing programs with the aim of desegregating schools to comply with the Supreme Court landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling of nearly two decades earlier.)
But it isn’t Biden’s misplacement of the Education Department’s history that is the true font of irony.
Since the Education Department’s inception as a Cabinet-level agency, conservatives have opposed it, arguing that education policy was the domain of local and state governments and that the federal government should not interfere. Supporters of the department saw as perhaps its most important role protecting the civil rights of American students.
It wasn’t until the administrations of Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic President Barack Obama — under whom Biden served as vice president — that the federal Education Department began to take a significant role in education policy that affected what happened in classrooms on a daily basis.
Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which went into effect in 2002, mandated that all school districts have virtually all students be proficient on reading and math tests by 2014. It was a goal that was known to be impossible even by the law’s authors, but it was advanced as an effort to close the achievement gap by focusing on the test scores of all students.
That started what is now known as the high-stakes standardized testing era, during which schools concentrated on test scores and test prep so they could avoid being penalized under NCLB. Many schools shortened or dropped other subjects, such as music and history and physical education to focus on the two tested subjects.
Obama came into office and, instead of alleviating the known problems with NCLB — especially the high-stakes tests — set policy that exacerbated them. His $4.3 billion Race to the Top program, which had states compete to win federal funds in exchange for a promise to follow education policy favored by Obama’s Education Department, led to even more high-stakes testing.
Through Race to the Top and in other ways, Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, pushed — some said coerced — states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, evaluate teachers by student test scores and allow charter schools to open. Many local and state officials saw the administration’s moves as trampling their ability to set their own school policy.
By all appearances, however, Biden was an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s agenda.
The Obama-Duncan education agenda so encroached on local education policymaking that Democrats eventually joined Republicans to change the federal K-12 law and send back to the states power that had been exercised by the federal government. The law passed in late December 2015, not long after Obama and Duncan conceded that high-stakes testing had gone too far.
Interestingly, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union, recently said that when the AFT was not getting along with the Obama administration on education issues, Biden was “our north star.” He was a “go-to guy who always listened to us,” she said.
Whether, and how much, he attempted to change education policy in the Obama administration is not publicly known. Biden has not said during his 2020 campaign whether he regrets any of the Obama education agenda.
Here’s part of the Harris-Biden conversation, from the transcript:
HARRIS: Okay. So on the issue of race, I couldn’t agree more that this is an issue that is still not being talked about truthfully and honestly. I — there is not a black man I know, be he a relative, a friend or a co-worker, who has not been the subject of some form of profiling or discrimination.
Growing up, my sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents couldn’t play with us because she — because we were black. And I will say also that — that, in this campaign, we have also heard — and I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden, I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.
But I also believe, and it’s personal — and I was actually very — it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.
And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.
So I will tell you that, on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly. As attorney general of California, I was very proud to put in place a requirement that all my special agents would wear body cameras and keep those cameras on.
MADDOW: Senator Harris, thank you. Vice President Biden, you have been invoked. We're going to give you a chance to respond.
Vice President Biden?
BIDEN: It's a mischaracterization of my position across the board. I did not praise racists. That is not true, number one. Number two, if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I'm happy to do that.
I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor. I came out, and I left a good law firm to become a public defender, when, in fact — when, in fact . ..
. . . when, in fact, my city was in flames because of the assassination of Dr. King, number one.
Number two, as the U.S. — excuse me, as the vice president of the United States, I worked with a man who, in fact, we worked very hard to see to it we dealt with these issues in a major, major way.
The fact is that, in terms of busing, the busing, I never — you would have been able to go to school the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your city council. That’s fine. That’s one of the things I argued for, that we should not be — we should be breaking down these lines.
But so the bottom line here is, look, everything I have done in my career, I ran because of civil rights, I continue to think we have to make fundamental changes in civil rights, and those civil rights, by the way, include not just only African Americans, but the LGBT community.
HARRIS: But, Vice President Biden, do you agree today — do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?
BIDEN: I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed. I did not oppose . ..
HARRIS: Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.
BIDEN: Because your city council made that decision. It was a local decision.
HARRIS: So that’s where the federal government must step in.