A return to normalcy in education policy won’t be enough

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at CPAC in 2017. Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

For the past four years, the Cabinet has been stuffed with people who aren’t qualified for their jobs. One glaring example is Betsy DeVos, whose only achievement as education secretary was antagonizing students and teachers with her regressive agenda. Her past not-so-relevant experience in education was as a lobbyist, not an educator. She effectively declared war on public schools, instead promoting charter and religious schools. She removed civil rights protections for victims of sexual assault, minority students and gay and transgender students. For the head of the Education Department, DeVos seems to be rather anti-education.  

The Biden administration will hopefully bring back some much-needed sensibility and empathy to the American education system. Of course, the bare minimum should be reversing the most detrimental of DeVos’ policies, such as her weakening of victims’ rights under Title IX.

But Biden must do more than just reverse the damage DeVos has done — he must go beyond a return to the status quo of Obama-era policy if we want to make actual progress in education. Rather than running in circles trying to reform inherently flawed policy, Biden should strive for upheaval by significantly increasing financial support for public schools and canceling student loan debt.

Biden hasn’t yet announced his pick for education secretary, but much of his education transition team is made up of former officials from the Obama administration. While almost anyone would be a step up from DeVos, education reform certainly wasn’t perfect under Obama either.

Obama chose Arne Duncan, former chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, as education secretary in 2008. Duncan’s intentions for education reform were characterized by the expansion of standardized testing and Common Core State Standards. However, this emphasis on raising educational standards placed the burden on teachers to produce certain test scores, often leading Duncan to clash with teachers’ unions.  

One such standard-raising program was the Race to the Top initiative. Part of this program was meant to increase the number of college graduates and contain the cost of tuition by incentivizing states that are willing to systematically change their higher education practices. But the Race to the Top, along with the rest of Duncan’s agenda, only seemed to exacerbate the failures of No Child Left Behind, again inflating the value of standardized testing and the Common Core.

One of Biden’s most significant departures from the Obama administration, however, is his close ties with educators and teachers’ unions. For instance, Biden likes to brag that an experienced teacher — incoming first lady Jill Biden — will be joining him in the White House. And the same teachers’ unions that showered Obama and Duncan with criticisms seem more than willing to work with Biden on making significant changes to our educational systems. With guidance from these groups, Biden has an opportunity to remove Obama-era standards and instead focus on significantly increased funding for public schools and colleges. 

Obama also prioritized education reform over more dramatic change. While he did attempt to keep tuition costs low and assist low-income families with the cost of college, he emphasized financial assistance rather than zero cost. 

On the other hand, Biden expressed tentative plans to cancel student loan debt and make college free for families making below a certain income. In order to depart from Obama-era reforms, Biden must follow through with the promises he made during his campaign. Canceling student loan debt and making college free for low-income students, at the very least, would be infinitely more meaningful than making a mere return to already lackluster policy.

I know that many of us simply want to return to a state of normalcy after Trump’s administration. But we shouldn’t necessarily strive for the same old status quo of the Obama administration, especially when the state of America is nearly unrecognizable from four years ago. We must strive to do better than before — and Biden’s support from teachers and their unions gives him the leverage to do just that.

Allison Cochrane is a senior biology major. She can be reached at allisonc@umd.edu.

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