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Biden promised teachers a raise, but education reforms will be a big lift in pandemic

Francesca Chambers
Mcclatchy

Washington – President-elect Joe Biden promised to give teachers a pay raise and direct more money to schools that serve low-income children, but those education reforms will have to take a back seat to emergency needs as schools fight to save teacher jobs and close funding gaps during the pandemic.

Education groups say that more than half a million teachers and school personnel have been laid off and more turmoil is on the horizon unless the federal government steps in with emergency funding. Those critical needs must be addressed first, they said, over the more aspirational parts of Biden’s education agenda.

In this Nov. 19, 2020, file photo President-elect Joe Biden speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del.

Biden’s education plan to “give teachers a raise” and “eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts” relies on expanding the federal education aid provision known as Title I, which he cannot do without Congress.

Additional funding for low-income schools and an increase in teacher compensation will be difficult to achieve, especially if Republicans keep control of the Senate, education experts said.

“He’s going to have significant constraints in terms of funding. To triple Title I funding is a big lift,” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association. “It’s a dream that we’ve all had, and it should have happened, but it’s going to require a lot of money at a time when the economy and money going towards the coronavirus and stimulating the economy may take precedence.”

Biden’s agenda has the backing of influential teachers’ unions that are close to the president-elect and his wife, Jill Biden, who is a professor at a Virginia community college. Leaders of those groups say they will put political pressure on lawmakers to help the Democrat implement his agenda.

But a large education funding initiative would have to overcome the type of gridlock that has prevented another coronavirus recovery package from making headway.

Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives. Control of the Senate, currently held by Republicans, will depend on the outcome of two runoff elections in Georgia.

To claim the majority, Democrats must win both Georgia Senate seats. That would then allow the vice president, who will be Kamala Harris, to cast tie-breaking votes on legislation.

In the Democratic presidential primary, Harris proposed putting $315 billion in federal spending toward teacher pay over 10 years. Biden has proposed tripling Title I funding to increase educational access and teacher pay, which would expand the $16.3 billion program to nearly $50 billion.

Jill Biden told members of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association this week that her husband and Harris would follow through on increasing education funding.

“They will fight for you every single day. And so will I. And that means tripling Title I funding, so that your students can get the support that they need. That means paying you what you are worth. That means hiring more counselors and school nurses,” said Biden, who is a member of the NEA.

“Educators, this is our moment. And together we are going to make sure that our public schools have critical resources,” she added.

Education groups are expressing optimism about a Biden-Harris administration, but acknowledged that increasing funding for teachers and low-income schools was probably more aspirational at this time.

“I see the commitment to tripling Title I as a long-term commitment, as an understanding of the underfunding that has happened in schools, particularly schools for poor kids throughout the country,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told McClatchy.

“And it’s a long-term commitment that hopefully can be realizable soon. But first and foremost, we need to actually confront COVID and get the resources that are needed to reopen school buildings safely, assuming that we can get through this surge, and get the appropriate educational resources,” she said.

Educational groups have banded together to lobby for emergency assistance from the federal government to help schools function during the pandemic.

The prospect of new school closures this winter as coronavirus cases climb is adding to uncertainty, said National Education Association President Becky Pringle. Virtual learning is exacerbating long-standing problems for schools because some children do not have access to home computers or the internet.

Pringle said she had discussed funding inequities in the education system and reforms to address structural racism with Biden and Harris.

“Those are big things to tackle,” she said in an interview, “but we have to if we’re going to get to that more just public education system.”

One of Biden’s first acts as president-elect was to assemble a coronavirus advisory board to his administration-in-waiting to develop guidance and identify the resources necessary to safely reopen schools and businesses.

Democratic lawmakers were supportive of Biden’s plan to direct more federal funds to teacher pay and education access for low-income communities. But they also emphasized that the first priority of both Congress and the Biden administration should be combating the pandemic.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., said in a statement to McClatchy that students are experiencing “tremendous learning loss and widening achievement gaps” as schools await additional guidance and resources.

“This is a pivotal and perilous moment in our fight for equity in education,” Scott said. “I maintain full faith and confidence that the Department of Education under the Biden administration will address the effects of this pandemic head on – that includes developing a comprehensive plan and providing resources necessary to accomplish that plan.”

Biden has not named an education secretary yet, but he has said he will put a teacher in that position.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who could become chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee if Democrats win the Georgia runoffs, said in a statement that the goal should be to make sure every student has access to a high-quality public school in their neighborhood.

Murray said that Congress should immediately provide public schools with $175 billion in emergency funding in order to implement health and safety measures, save educator jobs and provide high-quality distance-learning to all students.

“This pandemic has highlighted the existing inequities and systemic racism students across this country deal with every day – inequities that have left too many students behind, including students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, and students from families who have low-incomes,” she said.

A spokeswoman for North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, who is first in line for the HELP Committee chairmanship if Republicans hold control, declined to comment on Biden’s education priorities. A spokeswoman for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the next highest-ranking Republican on the committee, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Democrats may agree on the problem, but senior congressional aides familiar with how Title I is funded told McClatchy that Biden’s plan to expand it is not realistic at the start of his administration.

Congress currently appropriates $16.3 billion to Title I funding, an increase of $2 billion since fiscal year 2015. Any further increase in Title I funding would most likely be achieved by cutting funds to other programs.

The Trump administration proposed cutting federal education funding in its annual budgets.

Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that previous increases in federal funding for schools have not closed the achievement gap and that teacher pay is the responsibility of state and local governments.

Burke said public schools have increasingly spent money on areas that do not necessarily have a direct impact on the classroom such as non-teacher staff, which includes counselors and school nurses, and should consider reprioritizing their expenditures or seek additional state and local assistance.

“States and school districts have needed to get spending under control for a long time. We see that in things like unfunded pension liabilities, as well,” Burke said. “And so unfortunately I think what you see right now are a lot of special interest groups pushing for an additional federal bailout beyond the scope of this question of what schools need, in terms of COVID, but really to try to correct past spending sprees that schools have engaged in.”

Education groups are hopeful for additional investments in education in a Biden administration that go beyond emergency relief tied to COVID-19. Biden has also pledged to double the number of health professionals in schools, including psychologists, counselors, nurses and social workers.

Weingarten, the president of AFT, said that counselors and nurses are essential, particularly for low-income students who do not otherwise have access to those resources.

Teach Plus, a group that supports leadership opportunities for teachers, is pushing Biden’s incoming administration for investments in school finance equity and digital equity and is emphasizing the importance of investing in teacher diversity, including the recruitment and retention of teachers of color, said Lindsay Sobel, the group’s vice president of policy and external affairs.

“This is an incredibly challenging time for education. Communities of color and low income communities have been devastated by this pandemic and we think it’s incumbent upon us to emerge from this pandemic better and more equitable than ever before,” Sobel said. “And we think in order to do that, we need to support teachers and teacher leadership.”

Biden has said he will rely on his wife to help him make education policy decisions, a prospect met with enthusiasm by educator groups.

“He’s not joking,” Pringle said. “He said, ‘Becky, there’s no way that I’m going to be living with a teacher and not listening to her. That’s not going to happen.’”