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Top Biden Aide Talks Reopening Schools, Education Funding, Charters and More

Provides on-the-record comments in pre-election webinar.

Photo credit: Adam Schultz

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President-elect Joe Biden has a far-reaching education agenda that begins with actions to help schools reopen for in-person instruction, as well as plans to reverse key Trump administrative actions and more.

In a recent, on-the-record webinar, the Biden campaign’s national policy director, Stef Feldman, fielded questions from the Education Writers Association and its members around the country.

Below are key excerpts from that wide-ranging, one-hour conversation on October 22, 2020. Journalists and others are welcome to quote from the transcript here, though we ask that you cite the EWA webinar as the source.

On some issues, Feldman declined to make firm commitments. For example, she stopped short of saying whether a Biden administration would grant states a waiver for a second year of statewide testing required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“This is an important question that a Biden/Harris transition team would have to look at,” Feldman said. “In some ways, the answer to this question depends on how much progress we can make in supporting our schools and getting them back up and running.”

Feldman also reiterated that Biden would nominate “a former public school educator” to be his secretary of education, but declined to clarify whether this would be someone with experience in K-12 or higher education.

Some of Biden’s agenda items that require congressional approval will likely face a tough road, especially if Republicans retain control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats must win run-offs in two U.S. Senate races from Georgia to achieve a 50-50 split. If that happens, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris could provide a tie-breaking vote.

Feldman’s comments, which are drawn both from her opening remarks and in response to audience questions, are organized by topic. They include:

Reopening Schools

“We are in the midst of a new crisis, a pandemic that certainly was not created by President Trump, but President Trump’s failure to have a plan to get this virus under control and his failure to have a plan to support our public schools and our educators and our children during this time has led us to a place where we have a fundamentally disrupted education system and life has been made harder for tens of millions of hard-working Americans.”

“Biden has a plan, which he rolled out in June and July, to safely reopen our schools and support our educators and students. It’s a five-part plan. … It starts with getting the virus under control. That requires listening to science, having nationwide mask mandates, making sure that we have the personal protective equipment we need and using contact tracing to get the virus under control. Second, it includes setting national safety guidelines that are guided by science and empowering local decision-making regarding safe reopening of schools.” [Later in the webinar, she said schools “need clear, simple guidance that is executable. And we just haven’t been giving our schools that.”]

“Third, providing emergency funding for our schools to reopen. I’ve listened to Vice President Biden ask experts all sorts of detailed questions regarding the type of funding schools need in order to reopen safely. And it gets really specific. As many of you well know, schools need funding for things such as putting plexiglass around desks. They need funding for parts so students don’t have to go into the cafeteria and sit all in the same room in order to have lunch, but lunch can be delivered. There are so many basic needs that our schools have and this administration is holding up any additional funding.”

“The fourth part is ensuring high-quality learning during the pandemic as educators are valiantly using remote learning. And then the fifth part of the Biden plan for school reopening is to start thinking now about how we close what Vice President Biden has called the covid-19 education gap, which is recognizing that despite all of the amazing efforts by parents and the amazing efforts by educators, so many children are falling behind due to remote learning. And we need to be thinking now about how we help them catch up and succeed so this doesn’t follow them throughout their lives.”

[Later, Feldman revisited this topic.] “A lot of groups have said that schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. And that is certainly something that Vice President Biden agrees with. So the big federal role here is providing our local decision-makers with the resources and the information they need to make smart decisions.”

“Vice President Biden wants to get our schools open quickly, but he wants to make sure we’re doing it safely. He wants our students and our educators back in school. But we need to do it in a smart way. And that first requires providing our schools with the resources they need.”

FEMA Aid for PPE in Schools

“In September, Vice President Biden doubled down on this message. FEMA had just announced under President Trump’s leadership that they will not help pay for cloth masks and other personal protective equipment for school settings, claiming these basic health and safety costs for schools weren’t emergency assistance. … Vice President Biden made clear that … he would direct FEMA to make sure that our K-12 schools get full access to disaster relief and emergency assistance funds under the Stafford Act.”

“… On top of that, Vice President Biden would be working with leaders in Congress right now to pass an emergency package for schools so they have all the resources they need. That’s money for things like ventilation and other health measures, but also money for things like hiring additional teachers so we can keep class sizes small and we can support our students’ mental health during this time.”

Executive Actions on Transgender Students, Sexual Assault on Campus

“There are a lot of ways in which the Trump administration has rolled back rights for students in this country. A lot of that deals with transgender students or students who have experienced sexual assault. So Vice President Biden will absolutely reverse those rollbacks in policy in order to make sure that we are creating safe spaces, safe opportunities for our students in our schools.”

“… Vice President Biden has a very long track record on Title IX. He worked hard on the Obama-era regulations. He also did a great amount of work as vice president to change the culture on sexual assault on college campuses. And that is where he would continue as well.”

Boosting Title I Aid, Teacher Pay

“Vice President Biden is also very focused on tripling funding for Title I schools, which will close the gap between rich and poor districts.” [Federal Title I aid is currently about $16 billion each year.]

“And then when it comes to teachers, he is going to boost teacher pay and invest in professional development and help educators pay off their own student loans. We are proud to have the support of the National Educators Association and the American Federation of Teachers, and they will continue to be a partner as we work directly with educators to have an educator- -centered and a student-centered education policy.”

[Later, Feldman elaborated on the plans for Title I.] “The vice president has designed his proposal to increase teacher pay through the mechanism of tripling Title I funding and making the first thing that that funding has to be used for is to provide pre-K, to increase teacher pay and to make sure that there’s a robust curriculum across districts. Once … those three criteria have been met, then that funding can be used for other needs by those Title I schools. So that’s the first mechanism that the vice president is looking at to increase teacher pay.”

Learning Gaps, Social and Emotional Well-Being

“The vice president has proposed … directing a White House led initiative to identify evidence-based policy solutions to address gaps in learning, mental health, social and emotional well-being, and launching a grant program to encourage states and tribal governments to develop plans that adopt evidence-based recommendations to give all of our students the support they need. It also includes supporting community schools, which, as many of you know, work with families, students, educators and community organizations to identify families’ unmet needs and then develop a plan to leverage community resources to address those needs. Those are all things that we need to do, especially now due to covid-19. The most immediate thing we can do is get our schools open as soon as we can do that safely, which requires a plan to get the virus under control. [Later, she also pledged that Biden would push to double the number of mental-health professionals in schools.]

Supporting HBCUs and MSIs

“Vice President Biden is also very focused on the fact that many of the inequities in our system are based on race, which is one of the reasons [he] has proposed to invest more than $70 billion in historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions. A key here really is one of the driving factors for Vice President Biden doing that is recognizing that in order to meet the challenges of the moment, we need to be tapping into the talent at our historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions, which is why some of that funding will go to setting up research hubs and incubators at those schools. So graduates of those schools are creating the next pipeline of diverse K-12 teachers, are coming up with the solutions to tackle climate change and cancer and so many of the other challenges we have.”

Civil Rights Enforcement

“Vice President Biden absolutely believes that we need a strong civil rights division in the Department of Education in order to protect the civil rights of our students and make sure that they are receiving all of the opportunities that they deserve under the law. That’s a fundamental pillar of what our … education system is supposed to be and what the federal government’s role is in education.”

Charter Schools

“As President, Biden will ban for-profit charter schools from receiving federal funding because he just fundamentally believes that if they aren’t doing right by their students, no one should be getting rich by taking advantage of our kids. He will also, for nonprofit charters, Biden will make sure that we stop funding for charter schools that don’t provide results. Biden believes we shouldn’t be wasting the scarce resources that our public schools need so badly. And we’ll require every charter school, including online schools, to be authorized and held accountable by democratically-elected bodies like school boards and also held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as all public schools. That means things like regular public board meetings and meeting all the same civil rights, employment, health, labor, safety and educator requirements that public schools must. That’s the fundamental premise of the vice president’s belief that every child, regardless of zip code or parent’s income, race or disability, should have equal access to a high-quality public neighborhood education in their school.”

[Asked to define what “results” charters would need to demonstrate, Feldman said “that would be an important priority for a Biden/Harris Department of Education at the beginning of an administration to figure out some rules to set standards that would measure that.”]

“Vice President Biden doesn’t think that we need to do away with all charter schools. He absolutely wants to support our traditional public schools. But … he feels that the way in which he has designed his policy will allow for charter schools that are delivering results to continue, while also making sure that our funding is focused on our traditional neighborhood public schools.”

Address Student Loan Debt Through Legislation, Not Executive Action

“Vice President Biden has embraced the proposal, which I actually think was originally put forward by [Democratic] Senator [Elizabeth] Warren, recognizing that in the midst of this crisis, she proposed legislation to ensure that we cancel $10,000 of debt for every student debtholder immediately, given the moment we are in. And that’s the proposal that Vice President Biden has embraced.”

School Safety and Police on Campus

“Vice President Biden does believe that if there are police in schools, the first thing we need to do is make sure that they are trained to work directly with students and be around students to make sure that it is not contributing to any pipelines that might lead students out of school and into prisons. But I think stepping back, [he] in many ways thinks that the fundamental thing we need to do to make our schools safer is starting to invest in the mental health of our students, which is why the big funding proposal in the school safety space from Vice President Biden is his proposal to double the number of school mental health professionals.”

“Of course, on top of that, this issue comes out so much with respect to gun violence. And Vice President Biden has a big proposal to address gun violence, including holding gun manufacturers accountable, repealing their immunity to be held accountable for the products they produce, and banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines. I actually, when I work for Vice President Biden at the White House, did a lot of work to help him as he responded to the Sandy Hook shooting and then all the shootings afterward. And I know that this is something where Vice President Biden is deeply invested in making sure that schools are safe place to be for our students.”

“Vice President Biden has a very long record on Title IX. Let me start there. He worked hard on the Obama-era regulations, which is what he would return to and then build on. …

For-Profit Providers in Higher Education

“And when it comes to for-profit education, the Biden administration’s proposal is to require for-profits to first prove their value to the U.S. Department of Education before gaining eligibility for federal aid and also a return to the Obama/Biden borrower’s defense rule. Forgiving the debt held by individuals who are deceived by the worst for-profit colleges or career profiteers. Biden will also enact legislation eliminating the so-called 90-10 loophole, which some of you might know. But essentially this loophole gives for profit schools and incentive to enroll veterans and service members, which is extremely egregious in programs that aren’t delivering results.”

Support for Child Care, Early Learning

“[It] is incredibly important to help our child care centers remain open because, first and foremost, people can’t go back to work if they have nowhere to send their kids. And second, we know that there are a lot of child care facilities who are closing down, perhaps permanently in this moment when they don’t have an ongoing source of profit. So Vice President Biden very much included in his proposal for reopening schools, child care centers as well. … His plan is comprehensive for child care and K-12 and really represents the vice president’s view that it needs to be viewed as a whole continuum from birth through postsecondary education for our students. So part of that does include providing child care centers with emergency funding to keep groups small, to have more providers so they can keep children distanced, to buy plexiglass, to keep children more separated, to improve ventilation, to improve sanitation practices.”

Repairing School Buildings

“Fixing our schools and repairing them needs to be part of an infrastructure package. And he made sure that they were part of the infrastructure plan that we put forward. So the vice president’s proposal for education includes specific funding. In fact, $100 billion to modernize our nation’s schools. … And so the vice president has called for specific funding to be targeted to modernizing our schools. That includes first focusing on addressing any health risks. That was even before the coronavirus. We’re talking about health risks such as air or water being contaminated because going to school or working in a school should never make anyone sick. And then additional funding would be used to build cutting-edge, energy-efficient, innovative schools with technology and labs to prepare our students for the jobs of the future.”

Tax Increases on ‘Super Wealthy, Big Corporations’ Will Pay for Increased Education Spending

“Vice President Biden … has a plan to pay for all of his long-term spending by making the super wealthy and big corporations pay their fair share. This includes things such as making sure that capital gains, which is money that you make off of investments, is taxed the same way as earned income because you shouldn’t get a tax break just for having an investment when hardworking Americans are paying on their income at a higher rate. Vice President Biden has also made tax proposals to make sure that big corporations pay their fair share. I think it was last year that maybe 91 Fortune 500 companies paid zero dollars in federal taxes, which just makes no sense.”

School Segregation

“One [plan] is reinstating the Obama/Biden administration’s actions to diversify our schools. So the Obama/Biden Department of Education issued guidance that supported schools and legally pursuing desegregation strategies and recognized institutions of higher education’s interests in creating diverse student bodies. This has been rolled back. This is one of those things that a Biden/Harris administration will reinstate. Vice President Biden will also return to the Obama/Biden proposal to provide grants to school districts to create plans and implement strategies to diversify their schools.”

Turning Around Low-Performing Public Schools

“The first step is to make sure that we are providing these schools with the resources they need to provide a high-quality education to our students. Many times, Title I schools are disproportionately serving students who come from low-income communities. And the schools themselves are under-resourced. Oftentimes, they do not have the basic funding needed to make sure that you have enough teachers, to make sure you have school supplies. … These are schools where they probably have no mental health provider. … They might not even have a school nurse.”