All eyes are on the incoming Biden-Harris administration as the education community looks ahead to what the administration has planned for federal K-12 education policy, funding, and legislation.
In December, NSBA sent transition recommendations to the Biden-Harris transition team with key recommendations for the administration’s first 30 days and beyond. In late October, NSBA launched the Public School Transformation Now! campaign with a kickoff event discussing innovative policies and practices to reshape and provide a more equitable public education for each child. This campaign will be the focus of NSBA’s federal work.
NSBA’s Chief Advocacy Officer Chip Slaven leads NSBA’s federal and legislative efforts. He came to NSBA in 2019 with two decades of experience advocating for public education. Most recently, he served as counsel to the president and senior advocacy advisor at the Alliance for Excellent Education.
Slaven spoke with Editor-in-Chief Kathleen Vail about the federal outlook for public education in 2021 and beyond.
What changes will we see with the new administration?
You’ll see quite a change between the two administrations. They have very different focus areas. The real difference is the way they look at public education. The Trump administration has been very focused on private schools. They have had several proposals to move money typically designated for public schools into private education through “freedom scholarships,” which is a fancy way to talk about a voucher program.
In other words, students who want to leave a public school for private school would use this voucher to help pay the costs. The problem with that is, nothing against private education, but when you do that, it impacts the ecosystem of the local public school. The reality is, if you have a few students leave, down the line it impacts the entire public school system. Public schools are there to give everyone a free education.
So, I think you will see a transition away from focusing on private schools and focusing more on where 90 percent of students attend: a local public school. You will see more of a focus on things that school boards care about.
You will see a focus on improving equity. The Biden administration has talked about tripling Title I funding and a commitment to fully funding IDEA in 10 years, which NSBA has been calling for for years. We are hoping for a commitment to solving the homework gap, the term that refers to the digital divide in education. We’ve all seen what an impact this divide has had after COVID-19 forced so many school buildings to close and students had to go online to get their education.
Another focus will be teachers. The president-elect has talked a lot about teachers and how important they are. We all agree. We have a real problem with teachers in that we don’t have enough of them. There is a teacher shortage, going back years before COVID-19 hit. COVID-19 exposed how deep that problem is. We must build up a pool of incoming teachers. We also have to do a better job of providing training for those teachers. The federal government has an important role in funding some of those resources.
Will President-elect Biden revisit President Obama’s education policy?
The education agenda Biden presented during the campaign is pretty good overall for public schools. Obama did focus on charter schools and the Race to the Top. NSBA supports charter schools as long as they are under the jurisdiction of the local school board. When they are not under the authorizing authority of the local school board is when we have issues with them. But we haven’t seen or heard the same kind of focus on charter schools from the Biden administration.
The president-elect has committed to selecting a teacher for the U.S. Secretary of Education. And the focus will be on public schools.
I’m sure discussions will at least start on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). We are hoping Congress and the Biden administration are more focused on innovation that all public schools can do, not just experimenting with things that charter schools can do. There are many great things going on in some public schools now, but we need to take them to scale, and that’s going to require a whole school transformation effort.
Will they start on ESSA in 2021? It’s possible but difficult. Next year (2021) will be crazy. We don’t know what emergency help will be coming from Congress. There will have to be a lot of focus initially in the short term on getting schools back to where they need to be. I think it’s safe to say they will never be the same again. We learned some things good and bad about schools. You will start seeing schools employing some new models based on some successes they have had and also some things they’ve seen that haven’t worked so well. That’s something that needed to happen for a long time.
I certainly hope ESEA will be reauthorized in the next couple of years. Many of the education discussions that need to happen will impact ESEA reauthorization, particularly the issues of teachers and innovation.
What can school board members do to support NSBA’s advocacy efforts?
I want to start off by saying thank you for running for school board. School board members have the most difficult job of all elected officials. There’s not a lot of glory in what you do, except when you see a student graduate from high school. Thank you for the service to your local board. Keep being a good board member.
What you can do to support us at the federal level: Talk to your local members of Congress about what’s important to you and what your local schools need to make them successful. Talk to your state legislators. Your state school boards association can help you with that. The more we can build up an army of local school board members continually advocating at the state and federal levels, the more we can do to drive change at the state and federal levels.
Stay involved and stay engaged. I encourage everyone to pay attention to the NSBA advocacy agenda—the issues we are highlighting, and the action alerts we send out—because it’s time to take action on something. You can be assured we will keep working hard to represent you in Washington, D.C., but you can help us by staying engaged with us, your state association, and your elected officials at the state and federal levels.
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