Early headlines suggest that the Biden administration will respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and work with Congress to enact legislation to address significant financial challenges states and local municipalities will face.
Public education needs to be part of that key priority, not only because school districts are large employers and consumers of goods within communities, but also because the nation’s 50 million public school students require significant investments to address long-standing educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
During the recession a decade ago, public education funding cuts disproportionately affected high-poverty school districts. One study found that the nation’s most impoverished districts took almost a full decade to restore funding, while wealthier districts recovered much faster.
Joe Biden has promised that he will ensure “no child’s future is determined by their zip code, parents’ income, race, or disability.” Specifically, he has campaigned on increasing teacher pay, tripling Title 1 funding, and doubling the number of nurses and mental health professionals. These recommendations are a good start but not entirely sufficient.
Whether Biden will be able to make progress on these campaign promises will have a lot to do with the degree to which the administration prioritizes public education. The first step will require the selection of a secretary of education who values public education, the importance of supporting teachers and schools, and the need to utilize education research to drive reform initiatives.
Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump appointed education secretaries with limited or no public school experience who bet on accountability and choice reforms rather than funding improvements. The next education secretary should prioritize addressing the devastating impact of attending an underfunded school, which too often translates into poor facilities and a lack of quality teachers, principals, curriculum and mental health programs.
Researchers have concluded that the nation’s significant investment in high-stakes testing has not narrowed test score gaps between affluent and low-income students despite significant investments from the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations.
However, teacher job dissatisfaction and turnover have increased during this period. COVID-19 has exacerbated these decade-long problems, as shown by a recent report from the American Institutes for Research suggesting that the pandemic has contributed to a further decrease in enrollment in educator preparation programs while many teachers are considering early retirement.
The Biden administration must also find ways to increase education funding. Researchers consistently report that increasing educational funding increases student achievement and other desirable outcomes, but COVID-19 has made educating students more expensive given safety concerns while state revenues are in decline.
Schools will need federal aid to address long-standing educational equity issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly for low-income students and students with disabilities. A recent report on the digital divide found that about 15 million students lack adequate internet or devices to sustain remote learning, and 9 million lack both adequate internet and devices. Sustained federal aid is required to remedy this divide.
Prior to the pandemic, a report from the National Council on Disability concluded that a lack of adequate federal special education aid placed significant pressure on states and local districts that contributed to illegal activity and poor outcomes.
The pandemic has severely affected the education of students with disabilities served through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which will mean an even greater amount of short-term funding will be necessary to make up for missed services and regression.
Beyond these funding priorities, technical policy changes are needed that will require additional investments. The School Superintendents Association has provided recommendations that are critical, which include developing a more accurate student poverty metric to redirect federal resources, shoring up investments into school nutrition programs, and creating a streamlined process for school-based Medicaid reimbursement.
The Biden administration must make public education its top domestic priority because preexisting social and educational inequities have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and if left unaddressed will lead to serious harm to our children — our nation’s greatest asset.
David DeMatthews is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at The University of Texas at Austin.
David S. Knight is an assistant professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill.