Key education issues in play despite little campaign attention | #Education

Alan J. Borsuk
 |  Special to the Journal Sentinel
Early in Thursday evening’s presidential debate, moderator Kristen Welker said, “Let’s talk about schools.”   

A good idea, especially since America is going through the biggest disruption in schooling in living memory. And even beyond the pandemic impact, the educational needs of the country deserve attention.  

But the subject got short shrift during the debate. President Trump said schools need to be open in person and Joe Biden said schools need financial help from the federal government so they can provide in-person education safely. Trump said not many kids get COVID-19 and “the transmittal rate” to teachers is very small. Biden responded dismissively, saying, “Come on.”  

That was pretty much it for the subject of education. Same with the earlier presidential debate, the vice presidential debate, the content of all those commercials, and the rhetoric in campaign appearances. Not much talk about education.  

But there are strong differences in the candidate’ positions on education. The key difference is one familiar around Milwaukee and Wisconsin: Trump strongly favors school choice, including voucher programs and charter schools, and he is supported by advocates for those programs. Biden is a strong supporter of public schools and of more funding for public schools, and is supported by teachers unions and other public school advocates.  

On Sept. 21, Biden was interviewed by Charles Benson of TMJ4 in Milwaukee during a campaign appearance in Manitowoc. Benson asked if parents should have choices in where to send their kids to school, including private schools. 

Biden answered, “I’m a product of 12 years of Catholic education. The idea that taxpayers would pay for my education is contrary to basic religious principles … and contrary to public interest. The public schools are the first and foremost means by which we guarantee the education of everyone.”  

Biden has been critical of charter schools that are run independent of local school boards. He told Benson he could support nonprofit charter schools that offer specialized programs.  

He added, “I do have a problem with choice if you mean paying for private education that isn’t responsible to the same standards that are required of public schools.”   

Trump has made school choice his signature issue on education, and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was a prominent voucher advocate before joining the Trump Cabinet. She and Vice President Mike Pence have appeared in Wisconsin several times in support of school choice.  

In a meeting with a group of parents on Oct. 8 in Waukesha — not an official campaign event — DeVos said the coronavirus pandemic underscores why it is valuable for parents to have choices in how their children will be educated.  

Trump has supported proposals for such things as federal tax credits to help families pay tuition at private schools and he has proposed budgets in recent years that would greatly reduce some federally funded school programs.  

In addition to school funding for expenses for COVID-19 precautions, Biden backs major increases in federal education spending, in particular, by tripling funding for the Title 1 program that pays for services for low-income students.  

The irony is that it is unlikely that either of them will get their way on these big ideas in the next presidential term. There have been no big cuts in federal education spending during Trump’s first term — in fact, there have been increases in some areas — and the private school support ideas have gone nowhere. Many Republicans in Congress, and pretty much all Democrats, just aren’t going to do those things. Unless there is the unlikely event of Republican control of both houses of Congress, the next four years won’t be different.  

The same may well be true for Biden’s platform of big spending (except for pandemic issues). Unless Democrats end up in control of both houses, education proposals are likely to face the same gridlock that so many issues have faced in recent years.  

But none of this means there aren’t important implications for education on the line in the presidential race. Here are two reasons for saying that: 

  • Administrative policies and rules. The Obama administration did a lot to increase requirements on subjects such as racial and gender discrimination. The Trump administration rolled a lot of that back. None of it was handled by Congress. All of it was done through administrative actions. A lot can be done administratively.    
  • Appointments to the Supreme Court and lower courts. When Amy Coney Barrett takes a seat on the Supreme Court in the next several days, as seems certain, this will be a big victory for school choice advocates, strengthening the majority that generally favors opening the doors to public money being available to religious schools. A decision in the last Supreme Court term involving religious schools in Montana already showed the court majority’s position. And lower court judges have influence on a lot of matters related to schools.  

Education was once something that drew bipartisan support. Consider the education summit with governors of almost every state, convened by President George H. Bush in 1989, or the nearly unanimous passage of the No Child Left Behind law in late 2001. In 2015, after years of partisan division, Congress passed with large majorities the Every Student Succeeds Act. Each of these drew broad support and each was a landmark in education policy.  

That bipartisanship doesn’t seem likely anymore. Polarization is the order of the day. 

The imprint that either Trump or Biden will put on education in the next four years may not be as substantial as backers of either would like to see. But it won’t be hard to tell what one accomplishes from what the other would have. Times like these don’t offer much middle ground, even when it comes to helping kids learn. 

Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at  

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