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Biden unveils education plan, his first major policy proposal as a 2020 candidate

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks at a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., on May 13. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Former vice president Joe Biden on Tuesday unveiled his first major policy plan as a 2020 presidential candidate, an education proposal that would help teachers tackle debt, triple funding for districts with a high proportion of low-income students, and boost the number of psychologists and other health professionals in schools.

The proposal came as Biden addressed a town hall in Houston hosted by the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country, which is staging a series of town hall meetings with Democratic contenders vying for the union’s endorsement.

Biden’s pitch was as much that of a union booster as of a would-be education president. He offered a robust plan for new federal spending and promised to fight for new gun restrictions that he hoped would halt the string of mass shootings in schools.

The campaign did not say how much total new spending Biden was proposing, but it would amount to a significant increase. “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll show you what you value,” he said.

Also notable was what Biden did not propose. He said nothing in his plan about teacher or school accountability ideas that animated the Bush and Obama administrations but irritated teachers unions.

During the town hall, Biden voiced skepticism about charter schools, which won significant support under Obama. The former vice president said some charters work, but he said he does not support federal money to back for-profit versions.

“The bottom line is, it siphons off money for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble,” he said.

In a statement, Biden’s campaign said: “Educators deserve a partner in the White House. . . . With President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, they’ll get two. Dr. Biden has worked as an educator for more than 30 years. She and Joe understand that, for educators, their profession isn’t just what they do; it is who they are.”

Most recently, Jill Biden taught English at Northern Virginia Community College both during and after her husband’s time in the Obama administration.

The AFT has held town halls around the country for its members to question presidential candidates in person. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) headlined one event in Philadelphia, where she pledged that if elected president, her secretary of education would be a former public school teacher.

Biden is leading early polls for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Some of his competitors, including Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), have embraced sweeping policy plans — such as Medicare-for-all or comprehensive gun-control legislation — favored by the party’s liberal base.

By contrast, Biden chose an area where the federal government plays a relatively minimal role for his first policy proposal.

In the plan, he pledged to triple Title I funding, which goes toward school districts with a high proportion of children from low-income backgrounds. Biden also promised to overhaul the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to help public school teachers pay off their student loan debt.

He called for doubling the number of school psychologists, guidance counselors, nurses and other health professionals; ensuring federal funding for children with disabilities; and banning military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

And he threw his support behind universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds.

As Biden was rolling out his proposal, Harris, who has promised to allocate federal funding to raise teachers’ salaries, became the latest candidate to release a plan on reproductive rights.

According to a campaign aide, Harris planned to back new legislation that would require states and local jurisdictions to pre-clear any abortion-related laws with the Department of Justice before implementing them, much like the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that such entities do the same with voting and election-related laws.

Such a law would target jurisdictions that Harris argues have a history of violating the Roe v. Wade ruling over the last 25 years.

Under a similar system, the Voting Rights Act blocked nearly 100 proposed election changes between 1998 and 2013.