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 BidenTrump says he'll watch Democratic debate while en route to Japan 'because I have to' The Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? 5 things to watch in the Democratic debates 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 Ann WarrenTrump says he'll watch Democratic debate while en route to Japan 'because I have to' The Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? 5 things to watch in the Democratic debates MORE, Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump says he'll watch Democratic debate while en route to Japan 'because I have to' The Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? 5 things to watch in the Democratic debates MORE, and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisTrump says he'll watch Democratic debate while en route to Japan 'because I have to' The Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? 5 things to watch in the Democratic debates 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 ClintonImpeaching the president: At what cost, and by what method? The Evergreen State and the soul of the Democratic Party Biden, Eastland and rejecting the cult of civility 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 GoreImpeaching the president: At what cost, and by what method? Downey: Why I returned stolen campaign material — a lesson for Donald Trump Trump campaign considering making a play for blue state Oregon: report MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden has a lot at stake in first debate Biden to debate for first time as front-runner John Kerry: Play based on Mueller report is 'an act of public service' MORE talked about accountability and charter schooling as they positioned themselves as New Democrats willing to challenge liberal convention. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryMellman: Are primary debates different? MSNBC's Hayes fears Trump military move during Democratic debates READ: Trump's full exclusive interview with The Hill 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 praises Trump for showing restraint on Iran The bottom dollar on recession, Trump's base, and his reelection prospects What polls and history tell us about Trump's reelection prospects 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 TrumpTrump campaign buys full page ads in Miami newspapers ahead of Dem debates Trump administration's 'forced diplomacy' with Iran isn't working Roy Moore trails Republican field in Alabama MORE largely ignored education in 2016 — aside from one speech on school choice — most of Trump’s and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton5 things to watch in the Democratic debates Democrats leery of Sanders plan to cancel student loan debt Mellman: Are primary debates different? 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.”