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On Education, Joe Biden Is Making Sure “Nothing Will Fundamentally Change”

Joe Biden has the power to eliminate federal student debt, make colleges and trade schools tuition-free, and end high-stakes testing. We just passed his 100-day mark. He hasn’t done any of it.

President Joe Biden on May 4, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

When it comes to education policy, Joe Biden is following through on his promise that nothing will fundamentally change.

While he expressed support for some progressive measures on the campaign trail, like ending the high-stakes testing mandate for K-12 and giving relief to higher education students and borrowers, his actions so far have led some to surmise that corporatists and reformers are running the show at the Department of Education. Secretary Miguel Cardona has taken a prolonged “Help is Here” tour, but urgent demands from students, parents, and teachers are going unmet.

Here’s a breakdown of the administration’s handling of key education issues so far.

Pre-K-12

The vast majority of Cardona’s work to date has focused on guiding K-12 schools toward reopening in-person learning (despite mounting evidence that kids are at risk from COVID-19).

The American Rescue Plan (ARP) provided $122 billion in need-based reopening money for schools, and Biden’s Department of Education allowed Puerto Rico to access federal education dollars from which they’d previously been excluded. The ARP also used a variety of measures to put a temporary dent in child poverty — the primary reason kids struggle in school — and Biden’s American Families Plan proposes extending that support and investing in universal pre-K for three- and four-year-olds. If — and it’s a big if — Congress delivers these things, it would be huge.

Another hopeful sign is the inclusion of $100 billion to upgrade school buildings in Biden’s American Jobs Plan. The United States’ school infrastructure currently gets a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers, with buildings in poor areas being especially toxic and hazardous.

Less encouragingly, Biden’s discretionary budget proposal for 2022 increases Title 1 by $20 billion — $13 billion short of his much-publicized pledge to triple aid to high-poverty schools. Many schools’ funding has never been restored to pre–Great Recession levels (already inadequate and inequitable), and the impact of the pandemic has made things exponentially worse. And yet on this score, Biden is also compromising in a document that’s essentially just a wish list for Congress.

Testing

While campaigning, Biden indicated he understood that the corporate reform policies of the past two decades have failed the United States’ students. He vowed to end the federal high-stakes testing mandate that punishes students and teachers and provides a justification for closing schools.

Yet before Cardona was even confirmed, Biden reneged on this promise. Acting assistant secretary Ian Rosenblum, a standardized testing proponent whose most recent political role was with Andrew “Break” the Public Schools Cuomo, appeared in February to inform states they would need to resume testing this year. Since then, the Education Department has been denying states’ requests for testing waivers.

This is a slap in the face to the many students, parents, teachers, researchers, lawmakers, education officials, and activists who have urged Biden to keep his promise. The backlash has been fierce, with Republican legislators and teachers’ union leaders finding themselves in rare agreement about the insanity of enforcing the testing regime amid a deadly pandemic. One exciting development: parents groups and teachers’ unions have stepped up their collaborative opt-out organizing.

Charters

While campaigning, Biden also committed to ending federal funding of for-profit charter schools. A recent report from the Network for Public Education (NPE) shows how charter operators set up slick nonprofit facades and “maximize their profits through self-dealing, excessive fees, real estate transactions, and under-serving students who need the most expensive services.” The NPE has produced multiple studies documenting how the Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program (CSP) enables “a pileup of fraud and waste,” pouring federal education dollars into schools that close midyear or, in some cases, simply never open.

So far, Biden’s Department of Education has been quiet about charters, which are just one component of the privatization machine devouring our public schools. Biden’s 2022 spending proposal overview makes no mention of the CSP. Biden has taken campaign money from billionaire privatizers, and his close friend and deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed helped direct over a million dollars to Betsy DeVos–affiliated reform groups during his tenure at the Broad Foundation.

Biden seems to have selected Cardona largely because of his bland, moderate history (as Connecticut’s education commissioner he neither reduced nor expanded charters). But when it comes to privatization, there is no middle ground. Unless the president is willing to explicitly challenge the billionaire reformers, the vast, well-funded machinery of privatization will continue attacking public schools. Legislators across the country are currently pushing charter and voucher expansions, unfazed by the transition from DeVos to Cardona. Educators and parents will need to continue taking matters into their own hands, following the lead of the teachers’ union members who contested unsafe reopening plans.

Student Debt

About 92 percent of the $1.71 trillion in student debt is currently owed to the Department of Education. That gives the federal government significant power to transform how we finance higher education.

Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump provided some relief to specific groups of borrowers. Right now, the department is exercising its authority to forgo interest on most federally held loans. Biden should order the Department of Education to fire the predatory loan servicers and stop collecting the debt altogether. Devastating student debt is not a law of nature; it’s just a bad policy choice our executive branch keeps making.

Numerous organizations and congressional Democrats have urged the president to cancel all or most federal student debt. Perhaps fearing a primary challenge, Chuck Schumer joined Elizabeth Warren in pressing Biden to wipe out up to $50,000 per borrower “with the stroke of a pen.” Legislation included in the ARP started a ticking clock by making student debt forgiveness tax-free until 2026.

Biden initially claimed he didn’t believe he had the authority to cancel student debt beyond $10,000, passing the buck to Congress. Then, under mounting pressure, he asked Cardona to prepare a memo on his ability to cancel $50,000. Given Biden’s evident willingness to use imaginary red tape to excuse inaction on urgent issues, it seems likely that he has actually asked Cardona to give him a reason not to write down $50,000.

In lieu of broad-based cancelation, the administration has made a series of commitments to specific groups of borrowers. Yet even in these cases, the Department of Education has not made relief straightforwardly available to all who are entitled to it. Advocates complain that the office of Federal Student Aid is still playing by DeVos’s rule book, obstructing state- and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau–led efforts to ensure loan servicers are following the law. In February, Biden’s Department of Justice helped DeVos fight a subpoena requiring her to testify about her former department’s slow-walk and subsequent “Kafkaesque” denial of relief for students cheated by for-profit universities.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Credit Card Joe is no friend to borrowers. Biden himself supported the 2005 bill that effectively excluded student debt from bankruptcy proceedings. Still, it’s undeniable that widespread attention and organizing have moved the needle on this issue. We need to keep up the pressure.

Free College

Over the past three decades, as state support has plummeted, college tuition rates have risen about eight times faster than wages.

Multiple mechanisms, including the “settlement and compromise” authority that enables the executive to cancel student debt, could be used to make state schools, community colleges, and vocational/ technical schools effectively tuition- and fee-free. This would go a long way toward decreasing inequality and checking the market’s corruption of academia. (With the Department of Education footing tuition bills, schools might decide to raise prices even higher, but regulations could address that problem.)

Biden’s American Families Plan proposes two years of free community college, increased Pell grants, funding to improve graduation rates at schools serving low-income students, and funding to make two years tuition-free for qualifying students at minority-serving institutions. This complicated patchwork of ideas is better than nothing.

But again, the president can make both two- and four-year state schools free for students without help from Congress.

The Education System We Deserve

We need elected officials who are willing to draw a line around education and say: “This must be a public good, protected from the market.” Joe Biden is no such leader. And following the pandemic’s disruption, market forces are clamoring at the gates, hawking the latest edu-solutions to problems capitalism gave us.

Still, it’s possible that we will see progress during Biden’s presidency. He’s shown an appetite for boosting spending. School reform has been an unambiguous failure, and ballooning tuition and student debt are causing troublesome ripples elsewhere in the economy. Some sort of change will have to occur.

If we organize in the places where we hold power — where we work and where we send our kids to school — we can fight for the education system we all deserve.