The federal government has long been a bit player in education. Under an expansive vision being rolled out this spring by President Biden, that would change.
“These are truly unprecedented investments in education,” said Sarah Abernathy, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding.
Much of Biden’s strategy is focused on cold, hard cash, a show-me-the-money plan that would more than double federal support to high-poverty districts, rebuild crumbling schools and subsidize pre-K and community college alike. It’s excited educators up and down the system, but left some allies wondering if the administration is doing enough to use the money to drive policy changes by states and districts. For their part, Republicans oppose such sweeping new spending as well as the tax increases proposed to offset some of the cost.
Should Biden’s entire agenda become law, the U.S. educational system could morph from a 13-year guarantee — where children are entitled to free education from kindergarten through 12th grade — to a 17-year promise, where prekindergarten is available starting at age 3 and tuition is free through two years of community college.
“Think of it this way: Joe Biden is adding four years to a student’s education. It’s the largest increase in educational time since high school became universal,” said Rahm Emanuel, a longtime Biden ally who championed similar policies for early childhood and community college when he was Chicago’s mayor. Early-childhood education, he said, will prepare children to learn, while postsecondary programs prepare them for the workforce.
Already, Biden has signed into law the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, which injects $125 billion into the K-12 system and nearly $40 billion for higher education — more than doubling the Education Department’s annual budget. It also included a one-year expansion of the child tax credit, expected to reduce child poverty by half, that Democrats hope to make permanent.
Then Biden proposed a huge infrastructure package, which includes $100 billion to rebuild schools, plus $48 billion for the workforce development system and $12 billion for community colleges.
This month, Biden unveiled a discretionary budget proposal that seeks a 41 percent increase in the Education Department pre-pandemic budget, far more than any presidential request since the agency was created in 1979. It includes additional money for community schools, students with disabilities and school counselors. Biden also signaled that he would request a big increase in the Pell Grant, which subsidizes college tuition for low-income students, when he makes his full budget request.
A $200 billion pre-K plan, along with tuition-free community college and $225 billion for child care, is expected this month as part of a package the White House calls the American Families Plan.
Emanuel compared the Biden approach to the pandemic to postwar moments in American history — providing a moment to rethink the scope of what government can do. Administration officials say the shutdown of schools exposed inequities that were always present but now are impossible to ignore.
“It’s a commitment to address systemically some of the issues that have existed in our system for many, many years,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. He called the pre-K and community college investments essential “bookends” to the existing K-12 system that are needed to set children on the right path and, later, prepare them for the world of work.
No strings attached
So far, the administration has included almost no new demands in exchange for the enormous amount of funding that would support state and local education programs. That stands in contrast to the Obama administration, which used far less money — a $4.3 billion grant program called Race to the Top — to push states to make enormous policy changes, such as adopting Common Core curriculum standards and evaluating teachers based in part on test scores.
Some Biden allies say the president should insist on equity-driven reforms by states and districts as a condition for receiving so much new money.
“If we want to close that spending gap, we really need states and districts to step up,” said former education secretary John B. King Jr., who is now president of Education Trust, an advocacy and research group focused on equity issues.
For example, he said, the administration could require states to adopt more-equitable systems for distributing state funds to local school districts as a condition of receiving new federal money. King recently announced a run for Maryland governor.
A senior administration official responded that Biden has “made clear” that he plans to tie new money to ensuring that more equitable funding systems are in place, though the administration has yet to formally propose this.
Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), a former superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, generally supports the new spending but said he would like to see some fundamental changes in the Title I formula to direct more money to high-poverty schools if the government is going to increase spending so dramatically. He’d also like to see the money used to drive policy. For instance, he said, he’d like to see schools incentivized to pay teachers at high-poverty schools more.
“It would be a shame if we spend all this money and we do it in ways that don’t transform outcomes for kids,” Bennet said. “We’ve got to change the system. I don’t believe the system works well for kids living in poverty.”
The Biden program could, in some cases, reach far into the middle class — such as with the pre-K and community college plans. Much of it is targeted, though, to those who need it most.
Because schools are funded primarily by local property taxes, there are large gaps between tax collections in wealthy, mostly White school districts and high-poverty districts, which are more likely to educate students of color. The big boost to Title I could close some of the gap because the funding would disproportionately aid school districts with large concentrations of poverty.
At the college level, Biden is asking for an increase of $600 million more for programs at minority-serving institutions, historically Black and tribal colleges, and community colleges. These schools have fewer resources than others, and most of their students have low incomes.
“This is a president saying I prioritize these institutions. I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is … and I can’t tell you the last time a president has put an investment in these schools in his budget,” said Lodriguez Murray, vice president for public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund.
Proposing this agenda is, of course, different from passing it into law. Some of these ideas have been popular with Republicans, at least in the states. GOP governors in Tennessee and Maryland, for instance, have backed programs to make community college more accessible. But that’s a far cry from winning GOP votes for hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending.
After Biden put out his coronavirus rescue package in January, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said the plan “just throws around more taxpayer money with no regard for its efficacy and regurgitates left-wing policy priorities.” The plan got no Republican votes in the House or Senate.
Biden does enjoy support for his education agenda among liberals, who are pushing him to aggressively confront educational inequity, and centrist Democrats, who like several pieces of this package.
“He’s investing in things like apprenticeships and community colleges and pre-K and all kinds of things that moderate Democrats love,” said Lanae Erickson, who heads social policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “There’s something in there for everybody in the party and that’s how he’s keeping folks on board.”
A contrast with Trump — and Obama
It’s an obvious contrast to former president Donald Trump, who repeatedly, though unsuccessfully, asked Congress to slash education spending. It’s also a contrast to Democratic predecessors.
Former president Barack Obama favored many of the same ideas as Biden but spent much of his two terms negotiating with a GOP Congress over spending cuts, not spending increases.
Even when he had a Democratic Congress, Obama did not ask for this level of spending. After passing into law a recovery act meant to respond to the 2008 financial crisis, he telegraphed his interest in fiscal responsibility. At his first Cabinet meeting in April 2009, he announced that federal agencies would be hunting for cuts and efficiencies, saying he had challenged his secretaries to find $100 million in reductions.
Former president Bill Clinton proposed targeted programs, but famously declared that the “era of big government is over.”
“There was a big fight in the early days of the Clinton administration as to whether the first Clinton budget, which really set the tone for the entire administration, was going to be a traditional let ‘er rip public investment budget or reassuring the bond markets,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who served as a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House. Clinton chose to reassure the markets. “The Clinton administration was really focused on economic growth much more than on government growth.”
Since then, he said, there’s been a “sea change” in economic policy and an abandonment by both parties of the centrist coalition that worked to keep deficits in check.
The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has gained power, and public attitudes about the role of government have shifted. A Pew Research Center survey last summer found 59 percent of Americans think government should do more to solve problems, compared to 39 percent who said government is doing too many things best left to businesses and individuals.
The share saying government should do more has risen steadily since 2015, when it was 47 percent. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to say government should do more, but the share has risen among people in both parties.
That instinct for more government involvement is manifesting itself in Biden’s focus on equity. Murray, of the United Negro College Fund, said the education proposals show Biden’s commitment to communities that helped usher him into the White House.
“It’s a recognition of who brought him to the dance,” he said. “This is the first time in a long time where African Americans aren’t served with words but served with policy rewards.”