To a certain kind of person, who you run into in the wild a fair amount, when you criticize anything about President Biden you immediately get a response along the lines of, “so you want Trump?” It’s an idiotic response and a sign of how wanting and unimaginative our political debate is. This shows up in education, too, when you point out that the Biden education agenda leaves a little to be desired. “He’s better than Trump” partisans retort. OK, sure, yes, but that’s not the standard.
On balance overall I think Biden’s done OK and in a general election against Donald Trump I’d vote for him seven days a week and twice on Tuesdays (I have Boston roots). But his policies are not above critique and that seems especially true in the policy desert of education policy. In fact, something Presidents Trump and Biden have in common is a record on education that it would be generous to call lackluster.
Donald Trump careened into Washington threatening to blow up federal education policy and create a national school choice plan. He didn’t do any of that of course. And in a way that’s unfortunate. Not because I think that policy is the way to go but rather because at least we would have had something substantive to argue about and from that argument might have come better ideas, policies, or syntheses across various ideas and factions. But because Trump seems unable to hold onto a singular idea for more than a few minutes and cares little about policy not much happened.
Instead, his secretary of education, who is personally kind and well regarded, became scared of the media, insular, ineffective, and, to her credit, resigned after January 6th. (Ironically, the one Trump education policy that is pretty well supported, DeVos’ reform of Title IX’s illiberal approach to due process in sexual assault cases, is a policy the Biden Administration has made of point of undoing).
All this was playing out, of course, in the vacuum created by 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act, which even in the context of ridiculous law names is a standout because it was clear at the time it would widen not lessen inequities. Analysts including Chad Aldeman and Anne Hyslop called this out. But everyone was too excited to crowd into the East Room with Barack Obama to be bothered with, you know, policy. Yes, there was more accountability in ESSA than if Republicans had their way – but there’s not much and again that’s not the standard!
The unsurprising result was a continued post-NCLB decline in student achievement that’s been overlooked in concern about the impact of pandemic policies. Also, weirdly, many of these same people are the first to hector the rest of us about their “equity” “commitments.” Respectfully, if you actually talk with Americans from “marginalized” backgrounds they’ll take laws and policies that empower them and their kids over your bevy of political DEI trainings and workshops ten times out of ten.
What has Biden’s Department of Education done about all this? Not much. Like DeVos the current Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, is a nice guy. But what’s needed now is leadership and some hard pushes. You don’t have to go the full Mike Miles, but the education establishment needs more than coddling right now given the stakes. The Biden team left billions on the stump for school districts to do with largely what they liked and the results have been as uneven as you’d expect. Meanwhile those dollars leveraged little in terms of actual reform because there was no demand for improvement attached to them. Essentially school districts were not told to build back better but rather to shelter in place.
Higher ed is more interesting in some ways. Still, after dragging us through the drama of a Supreme Court case on a loan forgiveness scheme even Democrats said wouldn’t fly, it turns out we could have had some relief of student loans anyway? Thanks.
So now here we are. Republicans still bray about wanting to “abolish” the Department of Education. Yet after the last seven years a reasonable question might be, why bother? Democrats, who purport to be the public school people, have little to offer at a time parents are looking for something more and the relationship between citizens and their public schools is being redefined. Have you noticed the popularity of choice plans lately?
We can ill-afford this, but if a Biden – Trump rematch is in the offing we apparently are looking at 12 years of stagnation (and the other Republicans wannabes are not offering much either). This is hardly, in my view, the most worrisome aspect of a second Trump term in office but it’s also not nothing. Twelve years is essentially the time it takes a young person to travel their path through our K-12 schools. Where’s the agenda? Where’s the leadership? Yes, there are governors of both parties doing some interesting things – and those could help inform an agenda. There is great stuff happening in various places – that’s a lot of the work we do at Bellwether. But context and conditions matter, too, and traditionally there has been an important federal role in schools that has driven some real progress (probably more than you heard in today’s orgy of presentism).
The Indians just landed on the moon. The Chinese clearly do not have our best interests in mind. It’s starting to look like the Iranians don’t like us…U.S. political, military, and economic stature is being challenged all over and just being an English-speaking country with functioning courts, property rights, and a lethal military is not the sure bet it was in the 20th Century. Meanwhile, more immediately, twelve years matters a lot to individual lives and the choices people will or won’t have right here at home. Twelve years…
Now the fish:
It’s Friday, I know what you want. I know what I want!
One aspect of a robust federal role in schools is some sort of R&D or innovation agenda (more in innovation in that context here).
In this fish pic Simmons Lettre offers a quiet nod to a high innovation culture. A steady voice for innovation is Jason Weeby. Here he is this summer on the water with his family (and it’s not too late in the season to take a kid fishing).