As Biden marks 100 days, education takes center stage

The American Families Plan would fund an ambitious education platform.

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Photo by whitehouse.gov

The record will show that South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott provided the Republican response to President Joe Biden’s address last night to a joint session of Congress. But it was Biden’s speech itself that was the response—at times a rebuke and at other moments a reflection of—the presidencies of his immediate predecessors.

In a not-too-distant past, the $1.8 trillion cost of the American Families Plan that was the centerpiece of Biden’s speech last night would have been eye-popping in its size and audaciousness. The education priorities Biden outlined were nearly verbatim to the president’s campaign platform and a powerful reminder that elections matter. What is the president calling for? Exactly what he said he would on the campaign trail.

The president is proposing an additional four years of universal education because, as he said, “Twelve years is no longer enough today to compete in the 21st Century . . . [and] any country that out-educates us is going to outcompete us.”

What this would mean is preschool for all three- and four-year-olds ($200 billion) and two years of free community college after high school graduation ($109 billion). Biden also is proposing to increase Pell Grants by $1,400 per eligible student and to extend and expand the $2,000 per child tax credits included in the American Rescue Plan that is cutting childhood poverty in half this year.

For K-12 education specifically, the president is calling for $9 billion to invest in the teaching profession to address any projected shortages and to increase the diversity of the workforce. The Biden Administration wants to double college scholarships for prospective teachers to $8,000 per year, invest $2.8 billion in grow-your-own initiatives, target $400 million to HBCUs, subsidize in-demand teacher credentials like special education and bilingual with $1.6 billion, and provide $2 billion to support teacher leadership opportunities.

It’s a far, far cry from President Obama’s signature education initiative, the much-smaller $4.35 billion Race to the Top competitive grant program.

But wait, there’s more!, as the infomercial says. The president is also proposing $17 billion to provide all students in high-poverty schools with meals, promote more nutritional offerings ($1 billion), and make the summer meal program permanent ($25 billion).

Today is the president’s 100th day in office, but the American Families Plan unveiled last night has been years in the making. It is conceivable because of President Trump’s stripped-down education spending. Its scope is necessary because of the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic. And it is feasible because of the Biden Administration’s logistical triumph of administering 200 million vaccinations in four months and an economy that is starting to rebound.

Ronald Reagan said that government was the problem, not the solution. Bill Clinton affirmed that the “era of big government is over.” President Biden is offering a different approach in word and deed. For a public that no longer takes the essential functions and competence of the federal government for granted, he declared, “We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works—and can deliver for the people.” He clearly intends to try.