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

Biden's education agenda is comparatively modest — but historically ambitious
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On Tuesday, at an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) town hall in Houston, Democratic front-runner Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden campaign raised M more than Trump in the month of June RNC, Trump campaign raised 1M in June Michigan shuts down most indoor bar service in bid to prevent virus resurgence 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.”

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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 WarrenHouse Armed Services votes to make Pentagon rename Confederate-named bases in a year Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday Liberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP MORE, Bernie SandersBernie SandersHickenlooper beats back progressive challenge in Colorado primary Progressive groups urge Biden to tap Warren as running mate Young Turks host says Elizabeth Warren should be Biden's VP pick MORE, and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisLiberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday If only woke protesters knew how close they were to meaningful police reform 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 ClintonPoll finds Biden with narrow lead over Trump in Missouri Trump's mark on federal courts could last decades Obama, Clinton join virtual celebration for Negro Leagues 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 GoreIntroducing the 'Great Reset,' world leaders' radical plan to transform the economy The 'blue wall' is reforming in the Rust Belt CNN coronavirus town hall to feature science author David Quammen, 'Empire' actress Taraji Henson MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHow Obama can win back millions of Trump voters for Biden Biden taps Obama alums for high-level campaign positions: report Democrats debate Biden effort to expand map against Trump MORE talked about accountability and charter schooling as they positioned themselves as New Democrats willing to challenge liberal convention. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryWesley Clark says Trump not serving in Vietnam 'might have been for the best' in light of Russian bounty reports Juan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden The Memo: Trump's 2020 path gets steeper 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 CarterJimmy Carter says Israeli annexation would be 'illegal' land grab Trump's mark on federal courts could last decades WSJ editorial board tees off on Trump: Trends pointing to 'historic repudiation' 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.

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That brings us to 2020.

While President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE largely ignored education in 2016 — aside from one speech on school choice — most of Trump’s and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Nicole Malliotakis wins New York primary to challenge Max Rose Trump's evangelical approval dips, but remains high How Obama can win back millions of Trump voters for Biden 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.”