Biden’s opportunities to lead out in education

January 28, 2021

President Joe Biden has asked for American unity – a tall order in a nation whose division has driven news headlines for the past year (or more). 

But one place to start is an issue that nearly everyone is united in caring about: education. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how much education affects the home life of many Americans. And at the same time, education policy can be hotly debated and a source of further contention.

This means that one of Biden’s biggest opportunities to unite lies in how he handles education.

Here are Biden’s two biggest opportunities to help bring Americans together in education policy: (1) history and civics education and (2) innovative options.

History and civics education

History and civics education seems to be on a lot of people’s radars. People with markedly different perspectives on American history and on our government are clamoring to make major reforms in America’s schools, meaning this field is ripe for some leadership.

One of Biden’s first executive orders eliminated the Trump-era 1776 Commission – a commission created to restore “patriotic education” to schools, in large part as a way to counteract the New York Times’ 1619 Project. The 1619 Project centers America’s history in slavery and racism, claiming that its foundational date was in 1619 with the arrival of the first slave in Jamestown rather than 1776, when the American colonies declared independence from the British empire. In eliminating the 1776 Commission, Biden even called the effort “counterfactual” and “offensive.”

Certainly, for many Americans, eliminating and denigrating the commission is seen a divisive decision rather than one based in unity.

What Biden does now is the more important step. While states have jurisdiction to lead in education policy, a new federal administration has a unique opportunity to set a tone using its bully pulpit. Depending on how the Biden administration uses this power, it could either steady the volatile influences currently at play or further inflame them.

In the absence of the 1776 Commission, Biden’s administration should adopt a measured tone that expresses a sincere interest in (1) studying history and civics including America’s current status in basic civic and historical knowledge, (2) restoring a balanced approach to civics and history as a key objective in public (or any) education, and (3) creating a dashboard of a wide range of robust and varied history and civics resources available for parents and educators.

What the administration should not do in this area is shift to a wholesale adoption of a new, provocative reframing of American history or civics education that creates division over America’s founding. Likewise, it should avoid providing strong incentives or punitive-type consequences to push states to adopt any particular federal approach to history or civics.

Innovative options

Biden can also build unity around a widely understood problem: The pandemic is not yet out of sight and students still need an education.

The reality is that schools were largely unprepared for the disruption of the pandemic, and as a result schools and parents had to quickly innovate. Across all states, enrollment increased for charter schools, online school, homeschooling, and even innovations like “pandemic pods.”

Biden’s administration should welcome and nurture this homegrown momentum, not try to stymie it. Because the highest support for it exists on the political right, such a move would serve as a unity-building bridge spanning the political divide.

First, the Biden administration should stay away from making combative statements about school choice, including charter schools or homeschooling – which have been lifesavers during this pandemic. The worst thing he could do is lead out with reactionary policies simply to draw a distinction between his administration and Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education, which emphasized education choice. 

Biden’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education has had a long career in public schools. He has a record of both authorizing and keeping charter schools accountable, making him neither a major threat to nor a champion for charter schools, which may put charter advocates on alert. For now, championing a tone of encouragement for education choices like charter schools (as President Barack Obama did) while people are already moving that direction could cultivate good will from those on all ends of the political spectrum. He could go further by offering a tone of whatever-works-for-your-student, which would help families feel like they’re being supported as they continue to deal with the ebbs and flows of the pandemic.

Second, aside from language, the administration could continue to offer flexibility like waivers from federal programs or requirements whenever possible (not unlike the temporary freeze on student loan payment requirements) to show that states know best how to approach the needs in their areas.

Biden’s task for uniting Americans is bold. To make good on that effort, he’ll need to assess his opportunities for unity in education. History and civics as well as innovative options may be a harbinger for what he can accomplish more broadly.

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