Teachers unions are ready to flex long-dormant political muscle after playing defense for the past four years against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and engaging in repeated clashes with the Obama administration before that.
President-elect Joe Biden has promised a more prominent role for organized labor in his administration than under President Donald Trump or even President Barack Obama, whom Biden served for eight years as vice president.
Biden’s vision “is absolutely aligned with my own, which is to reclaim public education as a common good, as a foundation of this democracy,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest labor union.
In his presidential acceptance speech, Biden lauded his wife, Jill, a college professor who has said she will keep teaching as first lady.
“For American educators, this is a great day for you all,” Biden said. “You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.”
Biden’s close relationship with educators is expected to influence his administration’s approach to testing and accountability, charter schools, and campus reopening plans during the coronavirus pandemic.
Polarization and School Choice
Biden wants to end federal support to for-profit charter schools, which have been targets of union criticism, although he hasn’t endorsed capping the number of charter schools, which remain popular with many Democratic elected officials. He’s also more focused on funding for low-income schools than his predecessors.
Under Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the department used competitive grants to encourage states to adopt policies like expanding charter schools and linking teacher evaluation to student performance.
Schools could get waivers from accountability measures in the No Child Left Behind law, but only if they adopted certain policies. That helped fuel a resolution by NEA members in 2014 calling for Duncan’s resignation.
During the 2016 campaign, Democrat Hillary Clinton got substantial union support by emphasizing funds for low-income students, and expresing skepticism of more charters.
Support for Biden was even higher among teachers than for Clinton, based on campaign contributions. He banked about $195,000 from school teachers through Oct. 23, compared to the $193,000 Clinton raised for the entire 2016 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The totals don’t include millions donated to outside spending groups known as super political action committees.
Biden’s platform included measures like tripling funding for low-income schools. Recommendations released by the campaigns of Biden and primary opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were cool on charters and testing, said Chester Finn, distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank.
“Those are the two main support pillars of what we’ve thought of as education reform,” he said.
The debate over testing waivers could be an early flash point for Biden. Unions will push for fewer testing mandates in response to the pandemic, but some Democrats argue for resuming assessments.
After granting waivers for federal testing mandates last spring in response to the pandemic, DeVos warned states not to expect such flexibility next year.
That contrasted with her hands-off approach to tracking Covid-19 cases in schools, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Unions criticized the decision not to track virus cases in schools, and plan to push the Biden administration for more flexibility on testing in response to the pandemic.
But Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that backed Obama school initiatives, will urge Biden to maintain testing requirements to measure gaps in student learning during the pandemic, said Shavar Jeffries, the group’s president.
“Assessment data in the current environment is more important than it’s ever been,” he said.
The Biden administration likely won’t pull away entirely from assessments, which are important to measure student progress, said Elena Silva, director of PreK-12 education at New America. But it could push for shorter and more flexible standardized tests.
“The pandemic will compel yet another wave of assessment redesign, returning to the fundamental questions of what skills should we be measuring in the first place and are there better ways to do that?” Silva said in an email.
DeVos and Trump pressured school districts to offer in-person learning despite worsening trends for the virus, even while DeVos said the department had no role in tracking Covid-19 cases in schools.
Unions say they expect the Biden administration to be more proactive in compiling data on cases and helping schools navigate the virus.
“It’s your job to make sure our students are in environments where they can learn and learn safely,” Pringle said. “Until we get infection rates down, we’re going to see more and more schools closing.”
Choosing a Secretary
Organized labor leaders say they expect to have a hand in the selection of the next Education secretary. Both Weingarten—who called Biden “our go-to person in the Obama administration”—and former NEA president Lily Eskelsen García have been mentioned as potential candidates.
Biden’s education transition team includes four representatives from the AFT and NEA and is chaired by Linda Darling-Hammond, who helped manage Obama’s education transition and is seen as sympathetic to unions. But it also includes several former Obama officials who helped carry out elements of his administration’s education agenda that were unpopular with teachers.
Whoever Biden picks as secretary should be committed to supporting schools whether they are teaching students in-person or virtually, union leaders said.
“The reason a lot of schools aren’t open for in-person learning is because the federal government and Trump administration didn’t get the virus under control,” said Scott Sargrad, a former Obama Education Department official and vice president for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress. “There’s a lot of opportunity for state, local, and federal officials to partner with teachers unions and figure out the right strategy here.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org