By the looks of it, President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will be among the most teacher-friendly in history — and not just because incoming First Lady Jill Biden, who plans to continue teaching, will arguably be the most important voice in the president’s ear. Beyond that, Biden has called for a teacher-oriented Department of Education and is reportedly considering the former head of the biggest teachers’ union, and the current head of the second-biggest, for his cabinet.
Unquestionably, educators deserve greater support. But Biden should remember that what’s good for teachers’ unions isn’t necessarily what’s best for students. That goes all the more so as the COVID-19 outbreak imposes unprecedented challenges on the nation’s school districts this year.
Biden’s first challenge will be enacting another coronavirus relief package that includes aid for state and local governments, which may be forced to cut education funding thanks to sharp declines in tax revenue. Combined with the added costs of keeping schools open during a pandemic — such as improving ventilation systems and sanitizing classrooms — that could be a devastating blow. The president-elect should aim to reach a common-sense deal on a new bill as quickly as possible.
Biden’s next test will be ensuring that schools can stay open. During the campaign, his team has released a five-point “roadmap” for doing so that aims to set national safety standards while granting plenty of leeway to state and local authorities. That’s a sound strategy, but he should be sure to discourage arbitrary decision-making by school districts and press for following science-based metrics.
Longer-term, as the virus hopefully recedes, Biden will have a chance to make his mark on education policy more broadly. More funding for public schools is at the top of his agenda. But as decades of experience has shown, money alone won’t fix the problems facing America’s failing education system. Here Biden should follow the example of his former boss, President Barack Obama.
Beyond increased funds, the Obama administration also made accountability a central goal of its education policy. It encouraged the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, prioritized improving graduation rates, and embraced objective measures to address the achievement gap between minority and white students. The administration established a Race to the Top fund of more than $4 billion to provide competitive grants to states that met or surpassed its benchmarks for reform.
Following up on these efforts won’t be easy for Biden. Unions largely hated the measures, and progressives are increasingly hostile to the very concept of objective student evaluations. Biden himself has expressed skepticism about so-called high-stakes testing. So far, though, he has resisted the demands from some in his party to waive federal testing requirements during the pandemic. He should stand firm: Without meaningful metrics, progress in education isn’t possible.
A final goal for Biden should be the expansion of high-quality charter schools. Obama used his Race to the Top initiative to encourage such schools to flourish alongside more traditional ones. Teachers unions’ have since waged war against the idea, and Biden has said he’s “not a charter school fan.” But given the success that many have demonstrated, it makes little sense to oppose them categorically. On this score, Biden would do well to listen to parents from Black communities — especially those in New York and California — who can point to the invaluable role that charters have played in their children’s development.
In tackling these challenges, Biden will no doubt come under pressure from unions, his political opponents and the increasingly strident ideologues within in his own party. He should remember the one constituency that really matters: America’s children.