Building Back Better: the U.S. Department of Education

   It’s back-to-school season, and not since half a century ago, when court-mandated desegregation roiled so many schools, have students needed to navigate such a fraught learning environment. The underlying cause this time around is the COVID pandemic, and the weird, ongoing politicization of this public health issue has exacerbated matters to a tragic degree.

President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which squeaked through Congress last March (receiving only Democratic support in the Senate), included funding to help school districts invest in PPE, update ventilation systems, and establish other measures that would keep students, teachers and support staff safe when they returned to school.

      But with kids under the age of 12 still ineligible for the coronavirus vaccine, the federal Centers for Disease Control earlier this summer issued additional guidelines to help K-12 schools bring students back safely. Among the recommendations, the CDC encouraged adoption of a universal, indoor mask-wearing policy to help minimize the exposure of students, teachers and staff to the highly infectious Delta variant that now prevails.

   While a handful of states embraced the mask-wearing mandate, most abdicated any responsibility in that regard and left the matter up to local school districts and parents.

   Along with some Trump-affiliated politicians, right-wing talk personalities like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham jumped into the fray with anti-mask screeds. This motivated their followers around the country to protest at school board meetings and picket outside of schools, waving signs that declared “we don’t co-parent with the government,” and masks represented “the new symbol of tyranny.”

   Eight states – Texas, Florida, Arizona, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah, Iowa, and Arkansas – explicitly moved against CDC recommendations and prohibited school districts from establishing masking policies.

   Since then, there have since been some successful legal challenges by local school districts against the anti-masking policies in some of these states, and at the end of August the Department of Education opened civil rights investigations into the anti-mask policies in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, alleging that those policies discriminated against kids with disabilities, who are at greater risk of severe illness should they contract the coronavirus.

   It should be noted that the two governors who seem to have been jockeying for the highest anti-mask profile in press coverage, Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, now also have the distinction of being in charge of the states that have the most kids hospitalized due to COVID infections, according to NBC News. And in the month since school has opened, 13 school employees have died from the virus just in Miami-Dade County alone.

   Meanwhile, tens of thousands of kids in school districts throughout the country have gone into quarantine within days of starting school, because of exposure to COVID-positive students or staff.

   So the 2021-22 school year is getting off to a rocky start.

   This is not where the Department of Education wanted to find itself. Back in April, the Department had issued its first COVID-19 Handbook, which focused on health and safety measures that elementary and secondary schools could use to implement CDC guidelines. In June, it released a second volume, which addressed opportunity gaps that had been exacerbated by the pandemic. In addition to these top-down resources, the Department also launched a crowd-sourced clearinghouse of best practices that schools and educators around the country had developed to reopen schools for in-person learning.

Biden’s newly appointed Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, is the son of Puerto Rican parents. Cardona grew up in a Spanish-speaking home in Meriden, Connecticut, and after college he began his career there as an elementary teacher. At the age of 28 he became the youngest school principal in the state and developed programs for students with sensory exceptionalities and for bilingual students. At the same time, he worked on his doctorate, doing research on achievement disparities between English-language learners and students whose primary language was something other than English. Cardona was appointed Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education in 2019.

   The fact that he had only two years of administrative experience at the state level before advancing to the national stage may have given some White House watchers pause, and even one parent leader who worked with Cardona in Connecticut worried that he may be “a goldfish” thrown in with the sharks.

   On the other hand, at least Cardona understands many of the challenges that exist in the field of education, because he has spent his entire life learning in, working in, and supporting public schools.

   That’s unlike his predecessor, Betsy DeVos, who had served as Education Secretary under President Donald Trump. Not only was DeVos not an educator, she had never even attended a public school – nor had her children. Growing up in one of America’s billionaire families, and then marrying into another billionaire family, DeVos’s attitude toward public education was disdainful.

   Trump appointed her to his Cabinet because she shared his belief in paring back the administrative state. In her case, that meant privatizing education. DeVos had long been an advocate for school vouchers which, in allowing school choice, is a way of draining public funds out of public schools and into religious or for-profit educational enterprises.

   As Education Secretary, DeVos argued for significant across-the-board cuts to federal spending on education.  This would have included the McKinney-Vento Act, which provides educational supports for the very neediest kids – homeless children and youths. DeVos also wanted to defund the Special Olympics’ longtime Unified Champion Schools program that worked with schools across the country to make sports – and classrooms – more inclusive of students with intellectual disabilities.

   In just his first few months as Education Secretary, it is clear that Cardona’s priorities will look much different. His boss’s agenda is the opposite of divestment. President Joe Biden has laid out a vision that involves historic investments in public education. For starters, he wants to provide an additional four years of free public education – adding two years of free preschool classes for 3- and 4-year-olds and, at the other end of the standard American K-12 education, adding two years of free community college classes.

Biden also has made it clear that his administration will confront historic inequities head-on – and that’s historic as in way back. A quick review of this country’s education policies reveals systemic discrepancies that are a shock to 21st century sensibilities.

   In 1779, Thomas Jefferson – the same fellow who a few years earlier had penned the Declaration of Independence – advocated for a two-tiered educational system: one designed for an elite learning class, and the other providing more prosaic instruction for the working class. It was possible, Jefferson conceded, that intensive application by students in the laboring class might yield “a few geniuses from the rubbish.” (That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal.”)

   Even before the U.S. Constitution was ratified, ideas about what public education might look like were being bandied about throughout the nascent nation.

   When the Continental Congress authorized a survey of the Northwest Territory, it authorized a provision that for every township developed therein, a school would be established. This set the precedent for land-grant universities – although those didn’t come into existence until the second half of the 19th century.

   In New York, business leaders formed a society of public schools to train students in basic educational concepts – not unlike the Jeffersonian idea of schooling for the working class.

   Pennsylvania lawmakers, meanwhile, wrote free public education for poor students into their state constitution. Well-to-do families still had to pay.

   In 1827, Massachusetts led the way in universal education by passing a law that made a public school education open and free to all pupils.

   But as the nation expanded in territory, as well as population size and diversity, there were many roadblocks to that concept.

   In the South, with the slave trade importing large numbers of Africans and selling them into enslavement, most southern states tried to impose tight control on the lives of Black people, and forbade them from learning how to read. In 1831, the rebellion led by Nat Turner, a literate enslaved man, further reinforced white Southerners’ determination to bar Black people from access to any education.

   And across the West, as U.S. troops clashed with the tribes that were standing in the way of what white folks perceived as their manifest destiny, a new kind of racially-motivated educational oppression was imposed. Congress passed a law in 1864 that made it illegal for Native Americans to pass their culture and their language along to their children. As tribes were subjugated and reservations were established, Native children were removed from their homes and taken to off-reservation boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs so that they could learn English, and be inculcated in white cultural traditions.

   Following the Civil War, as the Union reincorporated the Confederate states during the Reconstruction era, Black Americans worked with white Republicans to push for state constitutions that guaranteed free public education for all. At the federal level, Republicans strove to fund public schools according to illiteracy rates, which would have guaranteed schools for poor Black students. But that bill was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson. Lincoln’s successor was a Democrat from the South who never had acquired a formal education himself.

   Johnson did, however, sign legislation that created the first official Department of Education. With a staff of four and a budget of $15,000, the Department was charged with gathering information from schools across the country to give a more accurate picture of the nation’s educational standing. But concerns were quickly raised that this new federal Department, led by education reformer Henry Barnard, had too ambitious an agenda and might exert too much control over local schools. Within a year the Department was downgraded in status and Barnard was notified of a hefty pay cut. He resigned, and the chastened Office of Education languished as a minor force over several decades as it was reassigned to and overseen by different Cabinet-level Departments.

   Education for children of color continued to be limited in many areas, and when Reconstruction ended and the Jim Crow era went into effect, the segregation of services and facilities and schools was reimposed on a purported “separate but equal” basis across the South – but of course fell far short on the “equal” part of the equation for Black students.

   Challenges to the “separate but equal” policies at institutions of higher learning began to take place in the first half of the 20th century. A young Thurgood Marshall, who decades later went on to become the first Black man appointed to the United States Supreme Court, worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to argue cases in Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas that broadened the opportunities for Black students in academia.

   Marshall also argued the famous case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1952. Brown v. Board of Education actually consolidated five separate cases that dealt with the constitutionality of segregation in public schools. Given the number and the complexity of the cases, and the potential these cases had to impact a momentous shift in policy, and a personnel change in the make-up of the Supreme Court, it took three years for the Supreme Court to issue the landmark ruling that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

   Desegregation did not come about peacefully. In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enable the desegregation of public schools there. His successor to the Oval Office, John F. Kennedy, also called in the military to enforce the desegregation of schools in Mississippi and Alabama in the early 1960s.

   That wasn’t the only consequential demographic shift that was taking place during that time. By the mid-1950s, nearly 8 million World War II vets had gotten education or training through the GI Bill, adding to a new, more highly-educated middle class. Their progeny represented a new baby boomer generation, which added to the need for school construction and staffing. And in 1957, with the Soviet Union’s successful launch into outer space of a beach-ball sized satellite dubbed Sputnik-1, the Space Race was on. The United States scrambled to play catch-up – not just in terms of growing weapons and technology programs, but also in bolstering the science and math curricula in America’s schools to support those industries.

   In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs ushered in the Head Start program for at-risk preschoolers, and saw passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which guaranteed federal funding for school districts that served primarily students from low-income families.

   And yet, despite these burgeoning programs, and an increased recognition of the importance of education to the civic and economic well-being of the country, the Department of Education was not reestablished for another 15 years.

   In 1976, candidate Jimmy Carter received an important endorsement from the National Education Association on his way to winning the presidential election. Since the 1950s, education had been joined at the hip with other social concerns as part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The powerful NEA backed Carter’s candidacy based on a campaign promise that his vice presidential running mate, Walter Mondale, had made to educators – that a Carter-Mondale administration would elevate education to Cabinet-level status.

   But this really wasn’t a priority for Carter, and he didn’t actually get around to following through on that promise until 1979 – just a few months before he launched his bid for reelection.

   In 1980, Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. One of the planks in Reagan’s platform had been to dismantle the brand new Department of Education and revert to more local control, “letting the fifty states – all those separate laboratories of democracy – chart their own courses on education.” 

   It was true that the Department of Education, which was still in its infancy, didn’t yet have much of a track record to go on. Nevertheless, Congress – which had just gone through the rigamarole of establishing the Department in the first place – was not inclined to allow its immediate demise, particularly since the educational legacy that Reagan left behind after working in his own “laboratory of democracy” as Governor of California, was one of drastic budget cutbacks, overcrowded classrooms, demoralized teachers and deteriorating test scores.

   Ah, test scores. Over the last half century, standardized testing has become big business – the tool for measuring whether a child’s education has produced the expected outcomes.

The No Child Left Behind Act, advanced by President George W. Bush in 2001, was a revision of the Lyndon Johnson-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It required better accountability from schools, and even established punitive measures for institutions that didn’t produce enough students with satisfactory test scores. But over time it became clear that some of NCLB’s prescriptive requirements were more onerous than they were helpful, and that testing requirements were dominating the school calendar. A 2014 survey of large school districts revealed that students were subjected to an average of 113 standardized tests over the course of their pre-K through 12th grade education. The constant cycle of test prep and test taking was sucking the spontaneity and joy out of both teaching and learning.

The law was revised again in 2015 under President Barack Obama. The Every Student Succeeds Act continued to measure progress and uphold an expectation of accountability, but stepped back from micromanaging to allow for more state-developed plans to improve instruction, increase equity and close any achievement gaps.

   Now it is Joe Biden’s turn to try to shape the nation’s approach toward education. Instead of talking about test scores or vouchers, he is focusing on reversing what more and more people are coming to recognize has been our country’s history of inequitable access to education and opportunity due to racism, poverty, and other factors. This President agrees with a rising tide of scholars and activists that while this history is measured by decades and centuries, it continues to be manifested today in ongoing generational trauma.

   Biden’s Build Back Better strategies for education are woven into his infrastructure bills. He calls for investments in physical infrastructure, ensuring that schools have funding for needed repairs, electrified buses, updating antiquated HVAC and plumbing systems, and installing broadband and tech-ready labs.

   And there’s also the human infrastructure to consider: providing child care, bus drivers, school counselors, school nurses and social workers, along with  more professional development for educators. Biden’s plan also recognizes the need to address teacher shortages, to develop more teachers of color, and to expand the pool of teachers who are trained to work with multilingual learners and students with disabilities.

   To address the equity piece, Biden notes the importance of recruiting a diverse group of teachers and staff to do this work so that all students can see these important adults in their lives as role models and inspiration.

The President also proposes increasing Pell Grant amounts to make college more affordable for low- and middle-income students, especially at Tribal Colleges and Universities, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and other minority-serving institutions.

   In July, Secretary Cardona hosted the first installment of an Equity Summit Series, which brought in the perspectives of educators around the country, from White Plans, New York to Walla Walla, Washington. 

   “Equity is not a passing buzzword, but an ongoing, continuous effort to make sure that every student feels supported in their classrooms and in every educational environment,” Cardona told summit attendees. He promised that ideas around equity would be infused in all the work at the Education Department and across the Administration for the next four years.

   These investments don’t come cheap.

   “As an educator, I know we've gotten used to doing more with less,” Cardona said. With the Build Back Better agenda, he said, “we can turn the page on that mentality.”

   The Biden administration maintains that after living through the trauma of a global pandemic, and with ongoing climate change disruptions and a domestic situation that has been repeatedly been rocked by shocking displays of racism, fascism and violence, our society and especially our kids need investments that are targeted toward stabilizing and improving American lives.


Barbara McMichael

Barbara Lloyd McMichael is based in the Pacific Northwest and writes about books and culture. She writes a syndicated weekly book review column called  “The Bookmonger” that focuses on Northwest books and authors. Her PR for People® Book Review is written exclusively for The Connector. 

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