Looking Ahead: UnidosUS’s Education Policy Team Considers What the Biden Administration Will Do For Public Education

Students pair off to learn math at Prospect Charter Elementary School in Brooklyn. Photo by Julienne Gage

After four years of United States Department of Education policies focused on rolling back civil rights protections and diverting already limited funds from public to private schools, UnidosUS’s education policy team says it looks forward to a more equitable outlook under the administration of President Elect Joe Biden and Vice President Elect Kamala Harris.

During her four-year tenure under the Trump administration, outgoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reversed Obama-era policies that protected students’ civil rights  and  that removed disciplinary practices that disproportionately impacted students of color. She also took away transgender students’ rights to choose their own bathrooms, and narrowed the definition of sexual harassment. Critics say that change critics weakens protections for victims of harassment and assault that were originally set out under Title IX — a law prohibiting sex discrimination on campus. While Biden has yet to choose his cabinet, UnidosUS is hopeful he’ll appoint an education secretary who values diversity, social inclusion, and equal access to a quality education.

“Every budget season the Trump Administration proposed roll backs to programs that support teachers and contribute to student enrichment, so it’ll be nice not to constantly play defense,” says UnidosUS Education Policy Advisor Roxanne Garza. “We’re hopeful that the administration will appoint a secretary who values the public school system, and will prioritize investments that help meet the needs of diverse teachers, students, and families.”

Potential Changes in the United States Department of Education

For UnidosUS Higher Education Policy Analyst Amanda Martinez, Devos’ exit means the end of additional regressive regulative policies that had been pushed to the top of the agenda.

“For-profit colleges producing bad outcomes for students and increasing their debt load will no longer live in a friendly environment. New policies will be less likely to exclude undocumented students and others from emergency relief funds during the pandemic,” she says. “We should also see student debt cancellation prioritized by a Biden Administration as pledged in his plan, instead of short-term payment suspension policies. The economic impact of debt cancellation for Latino borrowers will bring immediate financial relief to families and narrow the racial wealth gap.”

Plus, as Biden noted during his November 7th victory speech, his wife Dr. Jill Biden, who is an educator, will leverage her role as First Lady to further the fight for education equity.

“For America’s educators, this is a great day,” he said. “You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.”

Dr. Jill Biden has taught English, reading, and composition in high schools, adolescent psychiatric wards, and several community colleges. During her husband’s eight-year term as Vice President with the administration of Barack Obama, she taught English at Northern Virginia Community College, a post she has already said she would like to return to while simultaneously serving as First Lady.

“Nationally, a majority of Latino students are enrolled in community colleges and having a key advocate in the White House who is familiar with the system and the students it serves is a historic win. It means the Latino community will be top of mind in policy discussions, instead of forgotten or left out,” noted Martinez.

A Renewed COVID Relief Effort?

But while a newpresident will take the oath of office on January 20th, much remains the same in Congress, where gridlock continues anda second coronavirus stimulus package seems unlikely to pass under the outgoing administration.

Last spring, the passing of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, provided about $4 billion for emergency childcare services, including Head Start, the nation’s largest early learning and childcare program for low-income families. It also included $13.5 billion through an education stabilization fund to offset costs of school closures, provide new online learning technology, offer mental health services and supports, and build out summer and afterschool programs to make up for learning loss, as well as another $3 billion for state governors to use as they see fit for the most impacted educational agencies in their states. CARES also created a $14 billion higher-education stabilization fund, about half of which was earmarked for emergency tuition, course materials, food, housing, health and childcare. About $1 billion was earmarked for minority-serving institutions, and the rest went to colleges and universities to get their instruction online.

At the height of the pandemic’s first wave, UnidosUS was already concerned this legislation wasn’t going to be sufficient to meet all of the educational needs of students, teachers, and parents exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Now, in the midst of a second surge and already a couple of months into the school year, the lack of action by the federal government to provide relief is unacceptable,” says UnidosUS Education Policy Director Amalia Chamorro.

UnidosUS would like to see the U.S. government support COVID-relief for the Latino community by  pushing for  $1 billion for English Learners, $6.8 billion for E-Rate to provide students with broadband and computer devices, $10,000 debt-cancellation for student borrowers, and emergency student aid that includes DACA, TPS, and undocumented students.

“If we must wait for the new administration to take action on a COVID relief package, expect to see significant education cuts proposed in state budgets in January– as state revenues have been decimated and there has been no infusion of federal aid,” says Chamorro.

She says it‘s too soon to tell how quickly the Biden administration will be able to negotiate a stimulus deal, as control of the Senate remains unclear until the run-off elections in January to fill the two Georgia Senate seats. If Republicans maintain control of the Senate, then it would depend on whether Senate Majority Leader McConnell  decides to make a deal, or continues with his pattern of blocking such legislation. If Democrats win the two seats up for grabs, the Senate will have a 50-50 split with Vice President Harris breaking tie votes as president of the Senate.

“In either scenario, as we look to turn the page on 2020, the American people need the President and Congress to put politics aside and work together to lead us into recovery,” says Chamorro.

Beyond COVID relief, whichever party controls the Senate will confirm the next Secretary of Education, and have leverage in determining the chamber’s education policy agenda and budget priorities for the 117th Congress through committee leadership. With the current Chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) retiring, Richard Burr (R-NC) or Rand Paul (R-KY) will take the helm under a Republican-controlled Senate. If the Democrats take formal control of the Senate, current Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) is in line to become the new Committee Chair.  This committee can take up critical education policy issues such as the long-overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and conduct oversight hearings on CARES funding and the impact of the pandemic on underserved students and the federal government’s response.

On the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is likely to remain Chair and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) would stay in place as Ranking Member unless the Democrats flip the Senate and the roles reverse. On the Labor, Health, Human Services, and other Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee (LHHS), Senator Blunt is expected to retain his position as Chair, with Senator Murray retaining her position as Ranking Member.

“These positions matter in determining funding priorities in the federal budget. We’ll be carefully watching what happens in Georgia to see how it affects the fate of the Senate in January,” says Chamorro.

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