The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The future of public education is at stake’: An open letter to Joe Biden from 215 school advocates

Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden speaks during the National Education Association Strong Public Schools Presidential Forum on July 5, 2019, in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Public education advocates have had a difficult time in the past few decades as both Republican and Democratic administrations have pursued policies that they believe harm public schools.

President George W. Bush ushered in the No Child Left Behind period, signing the K-12 legislation into law in early 2002 and ushering in the era of the high-stakes standardized test. The goal of the legislation — which was written with the input of zero public school teachers — was ostensibly to ensure that marginalized communities were not ignored but turned out to be at best an ineffective solution to very real problems of inequity. Schools concentrated on math and English so students could pass mandated standardized tests while giving short shrift, or simply eliminating, classes in history, science, art, music, physical education and other subjects.

Then came President Barack Obama, who public education advocates hoped would stop the country’s obsession with standardized tests and address inequity baked into the funding system. Instead his administration heightened the importance of the test scores by pushing states to evaluate teachers by them. It also micromanaged education policy so much that the Education Department was derided as a “national school board” and Congress passed a successor law that sent policymaking largely back to the states.

After years of “reform” efforts, achievement and opportunity gaps remained and the school “choice” movement blossomed. Charter schools, which are funded by public schools but privately operated, received millions of dollars in federal aid, and many states pushed ahead with voucher and similar programs that used public money for private and religious school education.

In 2017, Donald Trump became president and named Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos as his education secretary. DeVos, who had spent decades pushing for alternatives to public schools and called them a “dead end," was so controversial that her Senate confirmation was the first in history that required a vice president to break a tie. DeVos made clear her agenda was not to boost public school districts but rather to create alternatives to them, and she has not disappointed anyone hoping she would do just that.

All of that brings us to today, when Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, is the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic Party and Trump is campaigning for a second term. Biden, who was not in the forefront of the administration’s education agenda, has promised that if elected, he would, among other things, triple the federal funding for high-poverty schools, increase teachers’ salaries and ban for-profit charter schools. He has also expressed opposition to high-stakes standardized testing.

Public education advocates say they are looking for Biden to do more to help public education if he is elected. Here is a letter signed by 215 of them with an agenda they are asking him to adopt:

Dear Vice President Biden:
As the Democratic Party presumptive nominee, you have the power to fight for the public schools and colleges and universities that our students deserve. We are concerned educators, public education advocates, union members, parents, and students, writing to request that you demonstrate your commitment to that agenda.
Over the past decade, politicians on both sides of the aisle have made devastating cuts to public education, while privatizing public schools, scapegoating educators, and providing massive tax breaks to corporations and the rich. These attacks have resulted in a national teacher shortage and reduced educational opportunities for many of our students -- especially students of color, those from low-income households, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities.
The public health and economic emergencies resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have only made public education more vulnerable. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of public education itself is at stake.
To reverse this offensive against public education, we call on you to pledge to appoint a Secretary of Education publicly committed to reversing this failed billionaire-backed “education reform” agenda and we call on your campaign to immediately adopt the following policy planks:
* Implement a Federal Emergency Education Program that would:
Provide direct federal aid to ensure that school districts and public higher education institutions are able to prevent budget cuts and maintain pre-crisis staffing levels.
Empower educators to determine how best to utilize remote learning education technology when it is deemed necessary for health and safety reasons and how best to teach those students for whom remote learning is not feasible or appropriate.
Suspend all federal requirements relating to the use of high-stakes testing for the duration of the emergency.
* Triple Title I funding to ensure that at-risk schools get the funding and resources they need and invest in broadband so that students have access to critical resources.
* Repeal high-stakes testing mandates that force educators to “teach to the test.”
* Address the school-to-prison pipeline by investing in public schools and calling for the elimination of zero tolerance policies and over-policing.
* Ban for-profit charter schools and for-profit colleges and universities.
* Support the NAACP’s moratorium on public funds for charter school expansion until a national audit has been completed to determine the impact of charter growth in each state.
* Eliminate the $440 million annual federal subsidy for new charter schools, which have a failure rate of 40 percent and currently subsidizes billionaire-funded corporate charter schools.
* Give teachers a much-deserved raise by setting a starting salary for them at no less than $60,000 (pegged to the cost of living), expanding collective bargaining rights and teacher tenure, and funding out-of-pocket expenses for classroom materials.
* Strengthen the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by ensuring that the federal government provides at least 50 percent of the funding for special education.
* Provide year-round, free universal school meals, increase funding for Community Schools and after--school programs, and implement universal child-centered pre-kindergarten for all children beginning at the age of 3.
* Guarantee tuition-free public colleges, universities, HBCUs, Minority Serving Institutions and trade-schools to all, not just those who qualify through means-testing.
* Cancel all student loan debt and place a cap on student loan interest rates moving forward.
1. Diane Ravitch, education historian and activist
2. Jonathan Kozol, National Book Award-winning author and advocate for children
3. Danny Glover, Actor, Social Justice Advocate
4. Michael Moore, Academy Award-winning director
5. Alex Caputo-Pearl, President, United Teachers Los Angeles
6. Cecily Myart-Cruz, Vice President, United Teachers Los Angeles, NEA
7. Cornel West, Professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University
8. Senator Nina Turner, campaign co-chair, Bernie 2020 and former Ohio State Senator
9. Shaun King, CEO, The North Star
10. Debby Pope, Chicago Teachers Union, Delegate and Executive Board
11. Arlene Inouye, United Teachers Los Angeles Secretary
12. Carol Burris, 2013 NYS High School Principal of the Year, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education
13. Angelina Cruz, President of Racine Education Association
14. Demetrio Gonzalez, President of United Teachers of Richmond, CTA/NEA
15. Jesse Hagopian, Teacher; Editor, Rethinking Schools; Co-Editor, Teaching for Black Lives
16. Juan Ramirez, UTLA/AFT Vice President
17. Julie Van Winkle, UTLA Secondary Vice President-elect
18. Ari Bloomekatz, managing editor of Rethinking Schools
19. RoseAnn DeMoro, Former Executive Director of National Nurses United
20. Steven Thrasher, Professor, Northwestern University
21. Larry Cohen, Board Chair of Our Revolution and past president of the Communications Workers of America
22. Frank Holmquist, Professor of Politics, Emeritus, Hampshire College
23. Jane F. McAlevey, Organizer, Educator, Author
24. Cynthia Liu, K12 News Network
25. Eric Blanc, author Red State Revolt
26. Adolph Reed, Jr., Professor Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania
27. Nikhil Goyal, former adjunct professor at New York University and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge
28. Charles Palermo, Professor of Art History, William & Mary
29. Bob Peterson, Rethinking Schools editor and Member, Milwaukee Board of School Directors
30. Eleanor J. Bader, English teacher and freelance writer
31. Kilynn Lunsford, National Organizer, Labor for Bernie
32. Annelise Orleck, Professor of History, Dartmouth College
33. Gordon Lafer, Professor, University of Oregon and Member, Eugene, OR Board of Education
34. Corey Robin, Professor, Brooklyn College, CUNY
35. Michael Lighty, Leading Advocate for Medicare for All
36. Joanna Wuest, Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer, Princeton University
37. Jennifer Ashton, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
38. Penny Lewis, Associate Professor, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies
39. Stephanie Luce, Professor, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies
40. Steve London, Professor, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies
41. Douglas A. Medina, Instructor, CUNY, Guttman Community College
42. Thomas J Adams, Senior Lecturer, University of Sydney (US Citizen)
43. Cedric Johnson, University of Illinois at Chicago
44. Samir Sonti, Assistant Professor, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies
45. Steve Striffler, Professor, UMass Boston
46. Allen Cholger, Sub District Director, USW (retired) and former Executive Assistant to the President, APWU, (retired)
47. William Mello, Associate Professor of Labor Studies, Indiana University
48. Nomiki Konst, Director, Matriarch
49. Nancy Fraser, Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics, New School for Social Research
50. Liza Featherstone, Adjunct Professor, New York University and Columbia University
51. Bruno Gulli, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY
52. Christian Parenti, Associate Professor of Economics, John Jay College CUNY
53. Rebecca Tarlau, Pennsylvania State University
54. Glenn Kaplan, filmmaker, Member IATSE Local 600
55. Rick Armstrong, Associate Professor Department of English, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY
56. Heather Lee Compton, Studio Zahiya
57. Meg Kallman Feeley, Adjunct Lecturer English, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY
58. Merlin Chowkwanyun, Donald Gemson Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University
59. Jim Zogby, Founder of the Arab American Institute
60. Daniel Moak, Assistant Professor, Ohio University
61. Wamiq Chowdhury, Attorney, Member NC Piedmont Democratic Socialists of America
62. Sarah Cate, Assistant Professor, Saint Louis University
63. Rebecca Garelli, Lead Organizer, Arizona Educators United
64. Marquita Walker, Interim Chair and Associate Professor of Labor Studies, Indiana University
65. Rogers M. Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
66. James Counts Early, Board Member, Institute for Policy Studies
67. Steve Presence, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, University of the West of England
68. Colleen Mihal, Professor, College of Marin
69. Lisa McLaughlin, Ph.D, Associate Professor, Department of Media, Journalism and Film and Department of Global and Intercultural Studies, Miami University-Ohio
70. Christopher R. Martin, Professor of Digital Journalism, University of Northern Iowa
71. Karyn Hollis, Villanova University
72. Adam Safer, Graduate Student, Stony Brook University
73. Bryan Wagner, Associate Professor, University of California, Berkeley
74. Janice Peck, Professor, Media Studies Department, University of Colorado at Boulder
75. Paul Prescod, Political Liaison in Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
76. Kevin Howley, Professor of Media Studies, DePauw University
77. Eric Cheyfitz, Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters, Professor of American Indian and Indigenous Studies
78. Carlos Figueroa, Ithaca College
79. Gino Canella, Assistant Professor and filmmaker, Emerson College
80. Daniel Brenner, Teacher, Eastern Suffolk BOCES (retired)
81. Michelle Strater Gunderson, First Grade Teacher, Chicago Public Schools, Trustee, Chicago Teachers Union
82. Robert Vitalis, University of Pennsylvania
83. Max Page, University of Massachusetts Amherst
84. Nathan Godfried, Adelaide & Alan Bird Professor, University of Maine
85. Inger Stole, University of Illinois
86. Philip Fiermonte, Former Burlington City Councilor
87. Joel Jordan, former Director of Special Projects, United Teachers Los Angeles
88. Rich Potter, Assistant Professor, American Jewish University
89. Kevin Gotkin, Visiting Assistant Professor, New York University
90. Lee Artz, Purdue University Northwest
91. Dr. Eileen R. Meehan, Professor Emerita, Department of Radio, Television and New Media, College of Communications, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Illinois
92. Jay O’Neal, West Virginia teacher and strike leader
93. Emily Schnee, Professor of English, Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York
94. David Duhalde, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Fund
95. Roxana Marachi, Associate Professor of Education, San José State University
96. Jeffrey A. Winters, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Equality Development and Globalization Studies Program, Northwestern University
97. Rod Metts, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, California State University, San Bernardino
98. Nino Gulli, Adjunct Professor, University of Maryland Global Campus, UMGC
99. William Riordan, History Instructor at the University of Colorado
100. Nicole McCormick, President, Mercer County Education Association
101. Mary Summers, Lecturer, University of Pennsylvania
102. Doug Henwood, Journalist
103. Herbert G. Reid, Professor Emeritus, University of Kentucky, Department of Political Science
104. Christina Dunbar-Hester, 2019-2020 Berggruen Fellow, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
105. Hadrian Predock, Associate Professor of Practice, University of Southern California School of Architecture
106. Robert M. Saltzman, Emeritus Professor of Lawyering Skills, USC Gould School of Law
107. Howard A. Rodman, Professor, University of Southern California, Past President, Writers Guild of America West 108. Larry Gross, Professor, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California
109. Mark Jonathan Harris, Distinguished Professor, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California
110. Kathy Smith, Professor, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California
111. Miki Turner, Assistant Professor, University of Southern California 112. Sean T. Mitchell, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Rutgers University, Newark
113. Rebecca C. Glasscock, Professor Emerita, Geography and Peace Studies, Bluegrass Community and Technical College
114. Priya Kapoor, Professor, Portland State University
115. Carlin Meyer, Prof. Emerita, New York Law School
116. Rianne Subijanto, Assistant Professor, Baruch College, CUNY
117. Janet Poppendieck, author, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America
118. Tulia Falleti, Class of 1965 Endowed Term Professor of Political Science, Director of Latin American and Latino Studies Program, University of Pennsylvania
119. Marisa Chappell, Associate Professor of History, Oregon State University
120. Micaela di Leonardo, Professor, Northwestern University
121. Judith E. Smith, Professor Emerita of American Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston
122. Julie Van Winkle, Secondary Vice President-elect of United Teachers Los Angeles
123. Lawrence Blum, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education, Emeritus, University of Massachusetts Boston
124. Michael Schwartz, Distinguished Teaching Professor, Emeritus, Founding Director, College of Global Studies
125. Richard Lachmann, Professor of Sociology, University at Albany SUNY
126. Keith Brooks, retired educator, NYC alternative high school division
127. Richard Strier, Sulzberger Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Department of English, University of Chicago
128. Laura Anker, Distinguished Service Professor, American Studies, SUNY Old Westbury
129. Alan Gilbert, Distinguished University Professor, Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver
130. Susan Jhirad, retired Professor of English from North Shore Community College
131. Bill Bigelow, Curriculum Editor, Rethinking Schools
132. Kathy Hall, Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania
133. Jane Kauer, Consulting Scholar, Physical Anthropology Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum
134. Ilana Gershon, Ruth N. Hall professor of anthropology, Indiana University
135. Karen Koran, retired educator, School District of Philadelphia
136. Ana Croegaert, Assistant Professor, Anthropology + Sociology, University of New Orleans
137. Amy Stornaiuolo, Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania
138. Brenda Beaudette-Kaim, French Department, University of Vermont
139. Kathryn Moeller, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
140. Bonnie Urciuoli, Professor Emerita, Anthropology, Hamilton College
141. Christy Schuetze, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Swarthmore College
142. Fran Ansley, Professor of Law Emeritus, University of Tennessee College of Law
143. Frederick Erickson, Professor Emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles
144. Arléne Amarante, Assistant Professor of Law at Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law
145. Karen Weinstein, Peralta Community College District
146. Alessandra Visconti, assistant professor of instruction, Northwestern University
147. Polly Murphy - Retired teacher TN School for the Deaf
148. Alan Spector, Professor of Sociology, Purdue University Northwest
149. Maria Catalfio, retired member, OPEIU Local 494
150. Ann Jefferson, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Lecturer, retired
151. Piotr Axer, PhD Candidate in Slavic Studies at Brown University
152. Bonnie Blustein, Professor of Mathematics, West Los Angeles College
153. Frances Maher, Professor Emerita, Wheaton College
154. Matt Witt, Editor, World Wide Work
155. John C. Berg, Professor Emeritus, Suffolk University
156. Ana Celia Zentella, Professor Emerita, UCSD Department of Ethnic Studies
157. Arleen Llanes, Middle School School Teacher, Bay Area
158. Daniel Merin, Climate and Culture Coach, Office of School Climate and Safety, School District of Philadelphia
159. Sylvia Lester, Child Psychologist, NYU Postdoctoral Program for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy
160. Julia A. McWilliams, Lecturer, Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, University of Pennsylvania
161. Monica Emerich, Instructional Designer/Project Manager, CSU Global Campus
162. Judy Norsigian, Co-founder and board chair, Our Bodies Ourselves
163. Rachel Rubin, Professor and Chair, University of Massachusetts Boston
164. Danya Lagos, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Texas at Austin
165. Elizabeth Manley, Kellogg Endowed Professor, Associate Professor of History, Xavier University of Louisiana
166. Gianmarco Savio, Assistant Professor, County College of Morris
167. Andrea Reyna, public middle school teacher; California Democratic Party Executive Board, San Mateo County Democratic Central Committee
168. Maia Cucchiara, Associate Professor, Urban Education, Temple University
169. Jeffrey Melnick, Professor of American Studies, UMass Boston
170. Sherene Seikaly, Associate Professor of History, University of California Santa Barbara
171. Nelson Lichtenstein, Distinguished Professor of History, University of California Santa Barbara
172. Alice O’Connor, Professor of History and Director of Blum Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Democracy, University of California Santa Barbara
173. Eileen Boris, Hull Professor and Distinguished Professor of Feminist Studies, University of California Santa Barbara
174. Linda Burrows, Public School Teacher
175. Laurie Katz, Professor of Early Childhood Education, Ohio State University
176. Wayne Au, Professor, University of Washington Bothell
177. Susan Fountain, Adjunct Professor, CUNY School of Professional Studies
178. Robert Farrell, Associate Professor and Chair PSC-CUNY Chapter at Lehman College, CUNY
179. Elizabeth Hovey, John Jay College, CUNY
180. Glenn Kissack, Retired Mathematics Teacher, Hunter College High School
181. Leo Parascondola, Adjunct Lecturer, William Paterson University
182. Michael Spear, Assistant Professor of History, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY
183. Jonathan Buchsbaum, Media Studies, Queens College, CUNY
184. Sigmund Shen, Associate Professor, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY
185. Dwight Billings, Professor Emeritus, University of Kentucky
186. Richard Maxwell, Professor, Queens College, CUNY
187. Stan Karp, Editor, Rethinking Schools
188. Lori Rothstein, CUNY Graduate Center
189. Carol Stabile, Professor, University of Oregon
190. Eileen Moran, Queens College, CUNY
191. Phaedra Pezzullo, Associate Professor, Dept. of Communication, University of Colorado Boulder
192. Philip Barnett, Professor, City College and Graduate Center, CUNY
193. Priya Kapoor, Professor, Portland State University
194. Rachel Youens, Adjunct Assistant Professor, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY
195. Vincent DiGirolamo, Assistant Professor and PSC Chapter Chair, Baruch College, CUNY
196. Ryan Bruckenethal, New York City Special Education Teacher, United Federation of Teachers
197. Gabriel Winant, Assistant Professor, University of Chicago
198. Ruth Wangerin, Department of Anthropology, Lehman College, CUNY
199. Kathleen Offenholley, Professor of Mathematics, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY
200. Olga Steinberg, Professor, Hostos Community College, CUNY
201. David Gerwin, Professor, Dept. of Secondary Education and PSC Chapter Chair, Queens College, CUNY
202. Eric Freas, Associate Professor of History, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY
203. Jocelyn Wills, Tow Professor of History and Affiliated Faculty Member, American Studies & Women’s and Gender Studies, Brooklyn College, CUNY
204. Marc Kagan, Graduate Assistant, CUNY Graduate Center
205. Ruth Milkman, Professor of Sociology, CUNY
206. Nelly Tournaki, Professor of Special Education, College of Staten Island, CUNY
207. Adam Sanchez, Teacher; Editor, Rethinking Schools; Zinn Education Project
208. Blanca Vazquez, Adjunct Associate Professor (Retired), Film and Media Studies, Hunter College, CUNY
209. Lisa Rivera, Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts, Boston
210. Josh Staub, Director of Restorative Programming, School District of Philadelphia
211. Rachel Buff, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
212. Christopher Zurn, Professor of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts, Boston
213. Eric Fishman, Elementary School Teacher, Boston Public Schools
214. Susan Kang, Associate Professor of Political Science, John Jay University, CUNY
215. Sarah Soanirina Ohmer, Assistant Professor, Department of Latin American and Africana Studies, Lehman College, CUNY

(Updating: Adding name)