Election 2020: When Will We Go Back to School?

Few issues have a more immediate impact on American families than education, as school systems strain to balance online and in-person learning and parents struggle with childcare issues.

President Trump has pushed for rapid movement toward in-person learning, and has threatened to cut off funding if schools do not bring students back into school buildings. Joe Biden, meanwhile, has released a school-reopening plan that stresses deference to local decision-makers while offering federal assistance to schools.

The outcome of the election is likely to have a strong impact on the quality and character of the administration next year.

To learn more about how smart organizations are advocating this year, download the 2020 State of Advocacy report

Back to School

On the question of government assistance to schools, Biden says he would direct FEMA to make sure all K-12 schools received “full access to disaster relief and emergency assistance funds” so they can operate safely. The funds could be used to buy large amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE), install better ventilation systems, or to pay more teachers to allow for smaller class sizes. The money could also be used to fund remote learning technology and to address student mental and emotional health needs.

To help more schools open, the Trump administration is reportedly considering allocating Abbott machines for rapid coronavirus testing to states based on the number of students attending school, which would give states an incentive to put more students in the classroom.

Of course, presidential candidates always offer an array of policy proposals related to education and the funding and political will for these initiatives often gets overtaken by more pressing demands once in office. But it is unlikely that the winner of this year’s election will be able to get away without major policy decisions on the future of U.S. schools.

In addition, the success of any president’s education platform will depend on the make-up of Congress, where spending decisions are made. The party that holds the Senate will have major influence over the future of education.

School Choice Debate

On the broader issue of education policy, Trump and Biden have philosophical positions that are, in many ways, diametrically opposed. Let’s start with the basic issue of spending: Biden wants more education spending, and Trump wants less.

Trump supports expanding school vouchers. The crux of his education agenda is to redirect traditional school funding to charters and private options. He has repeatedly sought to cut funding to the Department of Education, and move away from federal guidelines for schools.

Biden, for his part, is opposed to for-profit charter schools receiving federal funding. (Most charter schools are not-for-profit). During a February campaign event, Biden declared that “I am not a charter school fan.”

Indeed, Democrats this election year have taken a stronger position on the issue of charter schools than they have in the past. In their 2020 party platform, Democrats say there is a need for “more stringent guardrails” to make sure charter schools are “good stewards of federal education funds.” The party platform also calls for requiring all charter schools to meet the same standards of transparency as traditional public schools.

We will call for conditioning federal funding for new, expanded charter schools or for charter school renewals on a district’s review of whether the charter will systematically underserve the neediest students,” the platform says. The strong language on charter schools could reflect opposition that came from the progressive wing of the Democratic party during their primaries, when both Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders both vowed to ban federal funds for their expansion.

The difference between the two parties’ official positions on charter schools reflects the differences shown among voters. An August poll by Education Next, a policy journal at Harvard, shows that 54 percent of Republicans support charter schools compared to 37 percent of Democrats.

Educational Affordability

When it comes to the affordability of higher education, Biden has taken a cue from his more progressive opponents in the Democratic primary.  He wants to offer two years of free community college, and has proposed expanding federal supports to make college free for  families earning less than $125,000 a year.

Trump has proposed a cap on the amount of loans parents and students can take on, but does not have a comprehensive plan to make college more affordable.

Student loan forgiveness is also an issue that could be influenced by the election. With 45 million Americans owing roughly $1.6 trillion, it’s no small matter (a group recently gathered more than 1 million signatures on a petition supporting loan forgiveness). While some Democrats champion complete forgiveness, the proposal Biden supports would cap it at $10,000 per person. Democrats in the House and Senate have indicated support for some form of action on student loans, but Senate Republicans have not.

Other Biden education proposals include: universal pre-kindergarten for all three- and four-year-old children; full funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Act for 10 years; a public service loan forgiveness program; minimum salaries for educators; and the nomination of a teacher to lead the Department of Education. He also places less emphasis than Barack Obama on standardized testing and teacher evaluations.

Trump’s actions in education have been focused on ending Obama-era policies. Expect more of that if he is re-elected. For example, the Trump Administratioon rescinded Obama-era guidance designed to protect transgender students, reduce racial disparities in discipline and to promote racial diversity in schools. 

Trump has also sought, unsuccessfully, to cut the budget for the Department of Education’s office for civil rights and relaxed school lunch rules related to flavored milk, sodium and whole grains.

In addition, Trump has used education policy to address broader policy goals, such as supporting the arming of teachers. Trump has also reversed Obama guidelines related to Title IX, which is a law related to sexual assault cases. Expect Biden to flip these positions if he is elected.

To learn more about how smart organizations are advocating this year, download the 2020 State of Advocacy report


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