Biden's education agenda is comparatively modest — but historically ambitious

Biden's education agenda is comparatively modest — but historically ambitious
© Getty Images

On Tuesday, at an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) town hall in Houston, Democratic front-runner Joe BidenJoe BidenUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Biden to tap law professor who wants to 'end banking as we know it' as OCC chief: reports MORE sketched out his education agenda for 2020. While Biden’s address was more thematic than programmatic, it offered some fascinating insights into education and the 2020 campaign. 

Biden promised to triple federal spending on districts with large numbers of low-income income students, to double the number of psychologists and health professionals in schools, to boost teacher pay, and to provide universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. He unabashedly endorsed a variety of race-based policies, on questions ranging from teacher diversity to affirmative action in college admissions. His education agenda even featured a pledge to “defeat” the National Rifle Association. There were also a number of more bipartisan touches, like kind words on the importance of career and technical education, reinventing high school, and better linking schooling to employment.

Conspicuously absent was any talk of school accountability, standards, charter schooling, or teacher evaluation — themes that were hallmarks of the Obama-Biden approach. Instead, the plan was obviously to find common ground with teachers unions: AFT president Randi Weingarten cheerfully played her part, declaring, “Biden’s education plan represents the kind of muscular investment we urgently need to meet the needs of America’s kids, their families and their educators.”

ADVERTISEMENT

What to make of this? Well, Joe Biden, the most centrist candidate in the Democratic field, has sketched what would be the most energetically liberal presidential agenda in American history. Remarkably, it’s also true that Biden’s agenda appears measured and centrist alongside his rivals’ offerings. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Warren11 senators urge House to pass .5T package before infrastructure bill Senate Democrats seeking information from SPACs, questioning 'misaligned incentives' UN secretary-general blasts space tourism MORE, Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Manchin: Biden told moderates to pitch price tag for reconciliation bill Biden employs flurry of meetings to unite warring factions MORE, and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris unveils 0M commitment to new global health fund Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam House passes bill to compensate 'Havana syndrome' victims MORE have all opened their campaigns by promising hundreds of billions in new education spending — making Biden’s proposals look positively modest, in comparison. In other words, it’s pretty clear that any Democratic nominee is going to set a high-water mark for liberal activism when it comes to education.

Consider: Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonVirginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader MORE worked assiduously to distinguish himself from 1980s style “tax-and-spend” liberalism and used his support for education reforms like merit pay, standards, and charter schools, accordingly. Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreTrump's election fraud claims pose risks for GOP in midterms Don't 'misunderestimate' George W. Bush Why the pro-choice movement must go on the offensive MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTo Build Back Better, improving Black women's health is a must Rahm Emanuel has earned M since leaving Chicago's city hall: report 60 years after the Peace Corps, service still brings Americans together MORE talked about accountability and charter schooling as they positioned themselves as New Democrats willing to challenge liberal convention. John KerryJohn KerryOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — Senate Finance chair backs budget action on fossil fuel subsidies Kerry: 'We can't get where we need to go' in climate fight if China isn't joining in A new UN climate architecture is emerging focused on need for speed MORE’s 2004 campaign was consumed by Iraq and anti-war sentiment — the education agenda didn’t amount to much more than criticism of George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind law.

One really has to go back to Michael Dukakis or Walter Mondale to find a candidate whose domestic agenda included an unabashedly liberal vision for education. And, given the relatively modest federal education footprint of three decades ago, the proposals of these candidates were correspondingly limited. It’s true that Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterMeghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden America needs a new strategy for Pacific Island Countries Afghanistan and the lessons that history does not offer MORE’s 1976 campaign featured a pledge to create the U.S. Department of Education and that Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 run featured education as part of his “War on Poverty,” but the dollars and reach of these proposals — however significant at the time — are dwarfed by what Biden is contemplating, much less what Sanders or Warren have in mind.

When we broaden our gaze to include Republican as well as Democratic presidents, it’s also clear that how presidential aspirants talk about education may be changing. Up until the late 1980s, education was mostly an afterthought in national elections. When it did begin to emerge as a national issue, in 1988 with George H.W. Bush and in 1992 with Bill Clinton, it was a way for the parties to play to the center.

In 1988, Bush used his promise to be “the education president” to illustrate his “kinder and gentler” conservatism, as part of his effort to woo suburbanites and middle-class Democrats. In 2000, education would serve as a hallmark of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” For Bill Clinton, Gore, and Obama, promising to challenge teacher union orthodoxy and make higher education more affordable helped to highlight their centrist bona fides and their desire to emphasize responsibility rather than redistribution.

ADVERTISEMENT

That brings us to 2020.

While President TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE largely ignored education in 2016 — aside from one speech on school choice — most of Trump’s and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE’s education planks reflected pretty conventional partisan divides. In office, meanwhile, Trump has arguably overseen the most conservative Department of Education in history — with his administration unabashedly promoting school choice, seeking to cut education spending, and seeking to reduce the federal role. It is no surprise that, amidst our polarized politics, the Democratic field is responding in kind.

Education has long been regarded as an area of relative bipartisanship. That has been true for a variety of reasons, but one of them may be the tendency for Presidents to enter office with proposals that have been consciously crafted to appeal to the center. It now seems pretty clear that, whoever wins in November 2020, that will not be the case.    

In education, as in so many other things, Washington may be set to get even more partisan.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the recent Education Next study, “Education Reform’s Deep Blue Hue.”