When it comes to the impact on classrooms, teachers and kids, does the difference between the two candidates come down solely to what they are willing to spend?


U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

When schools have come up in the 2020 presidential campaign, it’s largely been about their front door, not their classrooms, students or kids.

President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden mentioned schools several times during their two debates—but only as they argued over whether schools should be opened or closed during the pandemic.

And that might be the most meaningful way the next presidential administration will affect public schools in New York City: by deciding or declining to help local governments and schools survive the fiscal aftershock of COVID-19.

“There’s a tremendous difference between Joe Biden’s platform and President Trump’s. [Biden] actually supports the HEORES Act,” says Councilmember Mark Treyger, a former teacher and the chair of the Council’s education committee. “We are facing a significant financial crisis and, make no mistake, the fiscal crisis inhibits our ability to reopen schools in a more comprehensive way.”

Backlash to Bush and Obama moves

Twenty years ago, education was a far more prominent topic in the presidential campaign. George W. Bush in 2000 denounced the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and, after taking office, got Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, which intensified high-stakes testing nationwide.

“For most of American history, education wasn’t seen as something presidents were supposed to talk that much about,” says Jeffrey Henig, an education historian at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “No Child Left Behind was probably the first big step by a president–more than just providing more money, which happened under Johnson—to actually directing what goes on in schools.”

That shift in the federal role dovetailed with local events in New York: Mayor Bloomberg took over the school system, engineered multiple reorganizations of the schools, devoted heavy attention to test scores and ushered in controversial policies like school closings and charter co-locations.

The moves stirred high controversy here, and there was resistance to “education reform” in other cities and states as well. The reaction to No Child Left Behind and to the Common Core, a set of standards developed by national organizations and promoted by the Obama administration, might even have lurked in the background in the 2016 election. “It seems to me that Common Core and No Child Left Behind set in motion a reaction to federal involvement in education that to some degree Trump honed in on in 2016, seeing Hillary as a tool of the teachers’ unions and [advocating] a stronger federal role,” says David Bloomfield, a professor at Brooklyn College.

Perhaps because he had campaigned on the idea that the federal government had been overreaching into local school affairs, Trump has not offered any major initiatives around schools. “I think he’s had very little impact. I don’t think he has much interest in it personally,” says Henig. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos certainly has an agenda, but some of those ideas are so far out of the mainstream that even a skilled political combatant—which DeVos does not appear to be—would be hard-pressed to achieve it. “What impact he’s had, I think it’s mostly been at the higher-education levels. They don’t really have a K-12 education agenda because his attention is elsewhere,” Henig says. “That could be different in a second term.”

Deregulation dominates

Zakiyah Ansari, the advocacy director and New York City director at the Alliance for Quality Education, says that merely by appointing DeVos, a noted advocate for privatization of education, Trump effectively turned his back on New York’s million public-school kids. This deep antipathy for public schools came into sharp relief after the pandemic hit, when DeVos tried to divert federal school aid money to private institutions. “Even in the midst of the pandemic, she was carving out dollars to ‘innovation,’” Ansari says, “’Innovation’ generally means something’s getting privatized.”

The Trump Department of Education did have concrete impact when it came to rolling back Obama-era protections for transgender students. Ansari feels Trump has created a larger atmosphere of intolerance that has bled into city schools. “I think it’s elevated some of the things we’re seeing in schools, even bullying.”

DeVos also made changes to the anti-harassment mechanisms in Title IX, delayed a rule to make sure disabled students get a fair shake, revoked Obama-era guidelines on school discipline and loosened oversight on Title I spending, which is intended to benefit low-income students.

Not all those moves generated big headlines because no single policy or law was put forward for public debate. “It moved from a statutory debate under Bush and Obama regarding [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act], and NCLB, towards a regulatory debate, and that’s where the action has been,” Bloomfield says.

What a second Trump might hold is difficult to predict with any detail because his campaign has said little about prospective policy, and the Republican Party did not issue a new platform this year, instead reauthorizing the 2016 one.

In its campaign material, Trump 2020 offers a modest list of education achievements, including reforms to the system for awarding financing aid for higher education and the timing of some of those grants. He also takes credit for proposing—but not enacting—funding for school choice programs.

The latter was a theme of the president’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention this year. “Biden also vowed to oppose school choice and close all charter schools, ripping away the ladder of opportunity for Black and Hispanic children,” the president said, a complete distortion of the vice president’s position. “In a second term, I will expand charter schools and provide school choice to every family in America. And we will always treat our teachers with the tremendous respect that they deserve. Great people. Great, great people.” He also pledged to “fully restore patriotic education to our schools.”

Back to calm waters

Schools were mentioned several times in the three national 2020 debates, but almost always in the context of COVID-19 shutdowns. Trump did discuss the support he had provided to historically Black colleges and universities, while Vice President Mike Pence—in answering a question about race—boasted about his administration’s support for school choice.

Biden mentioned the role of systemic racism in shaping educational opportunity. Sen. Kamala Harris touted the Democrats’ plan for free two-year community colleges and reduced student loan debt.

That is one part of a lengthy Biden education plan. When it comes to K-12 education, Biden emphasizes improved teacher pay and training. He calls for improving schools’ physical condition, battling the National Rifle Association to improve school safety, and creating more “community schools” that provide holistic services for both kids and parents. Biden also promises to provide more funding for guidance counselors and social workers. And he commits to “nearly tripling Title I funding.”

To Bloomfield, “the success of the Biden education plan is that it’s not a Trump education plan.” And indeed, there is nothing radical or especially innovative about what Biden is proposing. “Obama and Bush reform efforts were seen as somewhat punitive. Biden is positioning himself differently,” Henig observes. “Obama and Duncan took on the teachers’ unions, called for more testing, supported more charters. Biden is kind of paddling back to the middle waters of his party’s education policy.”

That means not just friendlier policies, but also looser purse-straps. Biden does not put a price-tag on his education plan, but he has signaled a willingness to spend money, some of it immediately to deal with COVID-19’s impact on classrooms. “Schools, they need a lot of money to be open. They need to deal with ventilation systems,” Biden said at the second presidential debate. Pointing to his rival, he added: “They need to deal with smaller classes, more teachers, more pods, and he’s refused to support that money, or at least up to now.”

In the current fiscal year the city is counting on the federal government to provide about 8 percent of the school system’s $27 billion budget. State aid pays for 42 percent of the city’s school costs, and about half the state’s education funding is actually federal money being passed on.

According to Treyger, the challenges facing New York schools do not only reflect the impact of the pandemic. Long-standing problems also need addressing. “Aid for Title I schools is flat. It nowhere meets the needs–nowhere meets the needs–of our kids.”

“I think the things that presidents do that aren’t called ‘education policy’ can have more impact than the stuff around which they raise the flag of ‘education policy,’” Henig says. Sizing up Trump and Biden, he adds, “The real difference would not be on the specifics of programs but a different orientation in terms of the federal government’s role in addressing financial needs. What will matter is the federal government taking on the responsibility to help.”

A deeper discussion

Ansari says she and the Chicago-based education activist Jitu Brown recently met with Karine Jean-Pierre, Harris’ chief of staff, to demand Biden commit to creating 25,000 schools and to empaneling an education council comprised of advocates and students. The Biden campaign has not said whether they will do either. But Ansari notes the the federal role in education will never just be about the money—because federal money almost always comes with strings attached. “By not allowing the city or the state to make decisions, what we do is let them off the hook because they can always say, ‘The federal government requires us to do that’ or ‘the federal government doesn’t allow that.’”

It’s not just what you spend but how, and where. Bloomfield hopes a Biden administration would provide more funding to the DOE’s office of civil rights. Treyger wants Washington to follow the spirit of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind, and give states and cities more flexibility on how they test and promote students. Adult education also needs attention, he says. “We very rarely talk about that,” Treyger says. “I think we need a plan that goes beyond K-12.”

Whoever wins on Nov. 3, his administration by design or default could help to define what has been fuzzy for much of the past 55 years: namely, the role Washington is supposed to have in setting school policy, or paying for it, or both. In recent elections, “none of the debates are framed around how federalism should work in schools,” Henig says. “It would be healthy to have that discussion.”