Makeup of Senate Means Biden Will Likely Lack Votes and ‘Big Buckets of Funding’ for Expansive Education Agenda

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President-elect Joe Biden might have won the White House, but his expansive education plan will soon hit a Congress that has far fewer Democrats than envisioned under the “Blue Wave” forecast prior to the election.

Democrats’ hopes for flipping the Senate now largely depend on capturing two seats in Georgia that won’t be decided until a runoff election in early January. While the outcome could limit the reach of Biden’s platform in Congress, experts expect him to turn back some aspects of the Trump agenda by making early use of his executive powers.

In the short-term, by announcing a COVID-19 Advisory Board Monday, he’s already focusing on issues of immediate concern to the teachers unions that contributed millions to defeat the president.

“I think teachers unions are going to expect Biden to stand with them on slowing the move towards school reopening,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant education professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “They will want him to change the public messaging on reopening, even before he officially takes office — to signal to the nation that the safety of teachers and students are a top priority for his incoming administration.”

After four years of President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shrinking the federal footprint in education policy, the nation now has a president-elect who has elevated the concerns of teachers, and has said that in educator and future First Lady Jill Biden, they will have one of their own in the White House. He has pledged a broad array of expensive programs, ranging from affordable child care and free preschool to tripling the size of Title I and college loan forgiveness. Like former President Barack Obama, Biden is expected to use executive powers to steer school districts in the direction he wants them to go. But the nation’s shaky financial outlook, a soaring national debt. and the uncertainty of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s status as majority leader will all determine how much Biden can deliver on those promises.

“A lot of what he was hoping to do hinged on big buckets of funding,” said Charles Barone, vice president of K-12 policy at Democrats for Education Reform. The Republicans, he said, would want “budget offsets for any increases in funding.” Many are also signaling a hesitancy to increase the national debt.

McConnell sent mixed signals on the next relief package last week, saying he would reconsider his earlier opposition to including state and local funding, which would help prevent cuts in education, but also noted a positive jobs report might indicate the nation doesn’t need as much help.

With Trump continuing to contest the election results, his agenda during his remaining days in office is unclear. McConnell will need to negotiate with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on funding to keep the government running, which expires in a month. Pelosi has also indicated she’s still holding out for a larger relief package in order to “crush the virus.”

Georgia’s ‘astonishing shift’

First, however, McConnell will learn whether he remains leader of the majority or if the Democrats, motivated by Biden’s win, pull off an extraordinary upset in Georgia.

Democrats need to win both Georgia Senate seats to reach a 50-50 split, leaving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to break any tie. Two other undecided seats favor GOP incumbents. Sen. Dan Sullivan has a large lead in Alaska, and Sen. Thom Tillis is leading by less than 2 percentage points in North Carolina, where vote counting continues this week.

With Georgia having played a crucial role in Biden’s win, it’s possible the state could offer a victory for the two Democrats — Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. If that happens, “it would be an astonishing shift that brings to fruition the state’s gradual transition from being a red state to a purple one,” said Steven White, assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University.

But Thomas Toch, the director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University, said he would be surprised if that happened. “Republicans will spend unlimited resources to get at least one of those seats,” he said.

‘The adults in the room’

With that in mind, Democrats are preparing for a scenario in which the Republicans retain control. There’s a chance Biden and McConnell could leverage the relationship they’ve had for more than 40 years and compromise, said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

“I see a scenario where there is a lot of upside for these guys positioning themselves as the adults in the room,” Hess said, adding that with any scenario, “you get more done [in education] than under Trump.”

Perhaps due to the uncertainty over the Senate, observers expect Biden to begin his tenure by drafting executive actions designed to restore Obama-era directives withdrawn by DeVos. These include discipline guidance intended to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions and another instructing schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Toch suggested Biden might feel pressure to roll back DeVos’s new Title IX rule regarding sexual harassment and violence, but the regulation went through a thorough rulemaking process, and a federal court has already thrown out one of four legal challenges against it.

In an Education Next article published just prior to the election, David DeSchryver of Whiteboard Advisors wrote that Biden’s regulatory agenda might also include student loan forgiveness, protections for students at for-profit colleges, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and voluntary school desegregation strategies.

Taking the regulatory route, however, could get Biden off to a rough first 100 days if he goes “pedal to the metal on pen and phone,” Hess said, referencing Obama’s record of avoiding the legislative process through executive actions.

Biden’s rapport with the Senate could also affect the reception given his nominee for education secretary.

There was a time when the Senate would “tend to defer to a new president” on cabinet appointees as long as there were no major ethical or legal complications, Barone said, but added, “I don’t think that spirit prevails anymore.”

Republicans, Hess added, could also be looking for “payback” after four years of harsh criticism toward DeVos and her private school choice agenda. McConnell has already indicated that he would reject any far-left nominees for cabinet positions. The GOP would probably raise eyebrows about some names that have already been floated, including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten or former National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia.

‘Kids returning with gaps’ 

If Biden doesn’t succeed at tripling Title I funding — which would push the figure from about $15.8 billion to over $47 billion a year — there are still ways he could incrementally move forward on some of the issues he promised to address.

Hess suggested Republicans might get behind an increase in funding for special education, especially since so many students with special needs haven’t received the services outlined in their individual education programs during school closures.

Increasing funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act “has been decades in the making,” noted Elena Silva, an education policy analyst at New America, a left-of-center think tank.

Because of the pandemic, there could also be increased support for expanding another pillar in Biden’s education platform — the community school model, in which districts work with other organizations, such as nonprofits, to provide after-school programs and address issues such as hunger, housing and mental health.

“We know that we are going to have a lot of kids returning with gaps in learning and varying levels of trauma,” she said. “School has to be a hub of care.”

‘The backbone’ of the economy

Biden’s agenda offered considerable attention to early-childhood, another sector hoping for some quick action to rebuild programs that allow parents to continue working while also preparing children for kindergarten.

“We cannot continue to underfund and undervalue a system that is the backbone of the rest of the economy, Rhian Evans Allvin, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children said in a statement.

It’s an issue that has bipartisan support, but has been tied up in months of failed negotiations over another relief bill.

Biden’s plan for Title I increases includes universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, but Silva noted the way the president-elect goes about expanding early learning programs could determine if Republicans get on board.

Most state pre-K programs already operate with a mix of school- and community-based centers, but conservatives might push for a system that emphasizes more parent choice and private sector contracts over expanding the role of public schools.

Finding common ground over choice in K-12, however, could be especially hard. Biden advocates tighter controls on federal funding for charter schools that are linked to for-profit companies and is completely opposed to any public funding for private school choice.

But he’s entering the While House after Trump succeeded at sitting a supermajority of conservative judges on the Supreme Court, which demonstrated earlier this year in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that it’s sympathetic to allowing public funds to flow to religious schools.

DeVos has suggested that Espinoza — in which the Court ruled private schools can’t be excluded from tax credit-funded scholarship programs just because they’re religious — could extend to religiously-affiliated charter schools. Support for tax credit funding for private school choice and homeschooling has picked up steam during the pandemic, with DeVos celebrating in September that all but one Republican senator voted in favor of a relief plan that included such provisions.

By July, almost a quarter of all federal judges were Trump appointees, according to the Pew Research Center. In an address to reporters before Biden was declared the winner, McConnell said that in addition to reaching a compromise over funding, the Senate will spend the rest of the session confirming Trump’s judicial nominees.

“There [are] some more judges to do,” he said. “We’re going to continue to confirm lifetime appointments to the courts.”

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