What the Biden administration means for education

The Biden administration must work to quickly reopen schools or else longer-term challenges, like improving learning outcomes and working conditions for teachers, will be overshadowed, says David R. Garcia, associate professor at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Garcia, who was also the Democratic nominee for Arizona governor in 2018, weighs in on the new administration’s priorities, funding for education, school choice and more. 

What should the Biden administration be thinking about when it comes to pre-K–20 education in the U.S. right now?

The top public concern in education right now is to reopen schools, including universities. Any longer-term educational policies that the Biden administration hopes to accomplish will be overshadowed if there is not a clear message about school reopenings and if, next academic year, students are not on campus. President Biden pledged that the majority of schools will be reopened by the end of his first 100 days, and we’re already about 70 days in. While the administration has acted swiftly on other policies, school reopening has proven to be particularly complex and politically charged given the decentralized nature of public education and the many constituencies (e.g., students, parents, teachers, administrators) involved in enacting educational policy. COVID-19 has created a major disruption to education, and the administration is smart to stay focused on this issue until it’s resolved.

Education policy is famously local. That said, the federal government has considerable power of the purse. Talk about that tension and 1) what you think we’ll see from the Biden administration and 2) what you would like to see?

I would describe President Biden’s education policies as “educator-first,” compared to President Trump’s “families-first” approach. President Biden’s major policies focus on improving the teacher profession through such things as competitive pay, investing in mentorship and increasing the diversity of the teacher workforce. There was little to no discussion about improving the conditions for teachers or the teaching profession under President Trump.

For example, President Trump’s rhetoric and focus were on dramatically expanding educational options for families. This approach placed an emphasis on improving educational outcomes through encouraging parents to exit public schools. President Biden, on the other hand, proposes to require school districts to use Title I funds to offer competitive salaries to educators before directing them toward another purpose. In other words, President Biden appears to be concerned with improving educational outcomes for students by improving conditions for teachers. There will be a stronger effort on building up education and the education profession under President Biden. 

Is there one major issue you would suggest they prioritize nationally? How determinative is each state and local context? What would you recommend for Arizona?

The major priority for Arizona is for federal education policy to stay focused on equity, particularly related to school funding. To summarize school finance in a nutshell, there are three primary sources of school funding: federal, state and local. 

Federal funds are the most equitable because they are earmarked to improve the educational outcomes of at-risk and disadvantaged students. State funding is largely equal. Local funding, such as school district bonds/overrides and tax credits, is inequitable because the amounts that schools receive are tied directly to neighborhood and family wealth. 

In 2016, Arizona’s neediest schools (highest percentages of students eligible for free/reduced lunch and English Language Learners) received less in state and local funding per pupil than Arizona’s most advantaged schools. The distribution of school funding was made equitable through federal funds because Arizona’s neediest schools received the most in federal funds. If federal policy remains focused on equity, then those Arizona students with the most need will benefit the most.

Miguel Cardona was recently appointed as the Secretary of Education. When might we see changes as a result of this new administration’s focus?

I don’t see Dr. Cardona making sweeping policy changes that differ dramatically from the vision that President Biden has put forth for education. From my view, the two appear to share a common vision. 

What I expect will change dramatically under Dr. Cardona is how leaders at the highest level approach education. For example, anyone involved with education understands that it is a partnership involving family, schools and communities. As an educator, I believe that Dr. Cardona recognizes this partnership and will take a collaborative approach when looking for buy-in to address tough issues.

If you had a direct line of access to the administration, what advice would you give? 

Don't forget about school choice. School choice can be a sensitive topic in Democratic and even academic circles. It is a popular policy with the general public. Republican and Democratic parents alike engage in school choice, and it is very likely that states will continue to expand school choice options. There is an opportunity, however, to reframe school choice away from a competitive model and toward supporting the options available within public education, including charter schools.

Also, I would encourage Dr. Cardona to institutionalize the community school model. In community schools, families, students, teachers and community organizations work together to identify student needs and leverage community resources to address these needs at school. The idea is that schools become community hubs. This “wrap-around” approach is common in many examples of quality education. The idea makes sense because it recognizes that student (and family) welfare outside of schools is critical to academic success in school. Community schools have not been implemented widely, however. If institutionalized, community schools could improve the lives of our most needy students. 

What is one of the biggest issues with regard to educational equity today? What is not happening or what needs to happen at the federal government and state and local levels to support this work?

I discussed equity, particularly funding equity, in the question above. I’ll take a different perspective here. One very important aspect of equity, particularly equitable opportunities, is to walk the walk. Dr. Cardona's Latinx and immigrant background are equity issues. To some extent, when education leaders talk about a commitment to equity, they are telling students from marginalized groups that they matter and that education leaders are invested in their success. This is a much more powerful and authentic message coming from an education leader who shares their story.