The best way to anticipate federal education policy during a Biden administration is to be unflinchingly realistic. Education policy will cater to special interests according to their ideological beliefs and self-justifications. Those special interests consist of entrenched institutions, their employees, and those connected to them — the educational establishment. At the K-12 level that means teachers unions and school districts, which have been worried about losing their protected public-school monopoly. In higher education that means leaders of public colleges and universities and of their highly subsidized private counterparts, who want to hold on to and enhance their status and funding.
Emblematic of the role of identity politics and the power of the teachers unions is President-elect Joe Biden’s choice for U.S. Secretary of Education. Biden has chosen to nominate Connecticut’s education commissioner Miguel A. Cardona. Cardona, who is Puerto Rican, is an identity-politics pick. The Hispanic Congressional Caucus says that “as a Puerto Rican leader he will bring a valued and diverse voice to the cabinet.”
Cardona is a former teacher and supported by the teachers unions. The education-related labor unions in Connecticut have endorsed him, saying he would be “a positive force.” The National Educational Association has said he would fight for teachers’ interests. Likewise, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has endorsed him, praising “his deep respect for educators and their unions.”
Biden has promised that his education policy will include massive subsidies to special interests, flusher funding of dubious programs, and distortions in school life and learning because of ideological dogmas.
While establishment special interests like teachers unions will be major shapers of Biden administration policy, we must not leave out the effect of the agitators. They would include, for example, those pushing into K-12 classrooms the New York Times’s 1619 Project, with its claim that all institutions in America are inescapably racist. These members of the Biden education coalition are moral puritans, doctrinaire egalitarians, and adherents of critical race theory. They also promoters of political correctness, social-justice warfare, cancel culture, and wokeness. They often advocate policies that advance the interests of the educational establishment, as political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg has noted. At the same time, they provide a moral patina for policies that might otherwise be seen as fulfillment of naked self-interest. These agitators advocate policies that expand the entrenched institutions’ budgets and influence — like diversity offices at universities — though they sometimes use forms of agitation that discomfit the establishment. The puritans help monitor and enforce policies through coercive pressure — threats of violence, Twitter mobs, deplatforming, and the like.
Even though the educational establishment and the agitators differ in style, both are part of the larger American intelligentsia, and thus they have much in common. Who’s in this intelligentsia? Highly educated workers, like city planners and social workers in welfare-state programs and agencies; Hollywood celebrities and artistic types; and urban professionals (doctors, lawyers, psychologists). They share many goals and rhetorical tropes. The intelligentsia’s ideological preferences include big-government solutions; suspicion of markets, profit, and private property; suspicion of the traditional family and traditional religion; and antagonism toward bourgeois values.
Both education establishment and agitators have an interest in defending conventional public schools and expanding higher education. They also have a converging ideological agenda. The question used to be asked in liberal public-policy circles: can we be equal and excellent too? Now the only question for the moral puritans and increasingly for the educational establishment is: how can we impose strict equality? Equity, which used to mean fairness, has been redefined for both the establishment and agitators as radical egalitarianism. In higher education radical egalitarianism, which formerly was confined to the humanities and social sciences, now has beachheads in mathematics and the hard sciences. What once was only in higher education is now increasingly in K-12 education, the corporate world, and the legal and medical professions.
Demonstrating that the establishment and agitators are within the same political tent, Jay P. Greene and Frederick Hess’s 2019 analysis of political donations showed that education-reform scholars gave 96 percent of their contributions to Democratic candidates and that reform practitioners (e.g., recipients of grants from the Gates and Walton foundations) donated 99 percent to Democrats. Such ideological homogeneity means education reformers are usually clueless about or unreceptive to conservative and libertarian concerns and are ill-equipped to make alliances across political aisles.
Once upon a time conservatives and libertarians were prominent leaders in the education-reform movement, working together with centrist Democrats — like Democrats for Education Reform and Democratic governors (during the administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush). But beginning approximately in the second term of Barack Obama, woke activists used persistent infiltration (“the long march through the institutions”) and moral grandstanding to squeeze out everyone to their right. Ultra-left agitators became the thought leaders in educational reform, and the union-affiliated establishment happily used the agitators’ egalitarian rhetoric and tumult to banish policies hated by unions — like opportunity scholarships, charter schools, and for-profit ventures — beyond the pale of acceptable discourse. This is apparent in the rhetoric and proposals of the Biden–Sanders Unity Task Force.
During the Biden administration we will see how this de facto coalition’s efforts play out in education policy at the national level. The main forms that Joe Biden has promised that education policy will take will be massive subsidies to special interests, flusher funding of dubious programs, and distortions in school life and learning because of ideological dogmas.
Special treatment for special interests can be seen in Biden’s proposed response to the coronavirus pandemic. During 2020, schools — however wrongly — have been treated by policymakers as a locus of infection, and policies have curtailed in-person teaching at public schools.
The Trump administration strongly urged schools to reopen. While it supported $13.5 billion in aid to schools in the COVID-19 relief CARES Act, it resisted the additional massive aid since demanded by teachers unions. During his campaign Biden promised aid along the lines requested by the unions. But even the pro-Biden New York Times was unsettled by “the president-elect’s closeness with the powerful teachers’ unions.” Both parents and state and local officials are concerned, in the words of the Times, that the unions’ “opposition to in-person instruction conflicts with science and students’ well-being.”
Further, Biden has asked Congress to cancel some student debt ($10,000 per recipient) as a COVID-19 relief measure. His proposal would cost about $420 billion. (That’s not nearly enough for Sens. Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, who want to cancel up to $50,000 per recipient. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s full-cancellation plan would cost an estimated $1.6 trillion. That plan would subsidize the top 20 percent of earners with $192 billion while sending a small fraction of that amount to the lowest 20 percent.)
Biden and the Democrats favored debt-canceling welfare for the well-to-do before COVID-19 came along. The Babylon Bee satire website captured the essence of the plan:
With Democrats proposing the mass cancellation of student debt, successful Americans around the country are really looking forward to paying taxes to relieve the debt of people who purchased expensive yet useless college degrees. One local plumbing contractor, Sam Caughorn, is really looking forward to paying the tab on his neighbor’s $89,000 gender studies degree.
“Listen, I’m just a plumber,” he said. “I didn’t go to college, but I work hard and support my family. I don’t know about all that high-falutin gender stuff they teach in college, but I’m sure it must be important since it’s so expensive! Happy to help out another person in need.”
We have to ask, as columnist Jonah Goldberg has, who would benefit most from student-debt cancelation. The answer is people who need costly graduate degrees, such as young urban professionals in the Biden intelligentsia — who are not exactly low lifetime earners. Economist Richard Vedder writes that a “majority of the debt” is owed by individuals borrowing large amounts of money, “very often for graduate or professional school, a large portion of whom are living in affluent zip codes earning big salaries from jobs acquired after acquiring loan-assisted M.B.A., law or medical degrees.” Loan cancellation, Vedder notes, “disproportionately helps golf-playing purveyors of white privilege driving nice cars.”
In addition, teachers would benefit greatly because of the “master’s bump.” Teachers make more money when they have advanced degrees, but their fancy sheepskins don’t particularly improve student learning. Such teachers, as Raegen Miller and Marguerite Roza have pointed out, are “no more effective, on average, than teachers without” those degrees. Federal, state, and local bureaucrats likewise often have salary boosts tied to advanced degrees.
There are related ploys in the game of “Careers” for the intelligentsia. Federal loan agreements with students include a clause called “borrower defense to repayment” under which borrowers can have their loans eliminated if they can demonstrate that college ads, recruiting spiels, or the like were misleading or led to an inadequate student experience. As interpreted by the Obama administration (in regulations issued as the administration was going out the door), college misconduct included misunderstandings by students. These misunderstandings might not have been intended or expected by the college, but might have occurred because of students’ lack of sophistication or of knowledge that would have been helpful. The Trump administration, in contrast, required that students show they suffered financially and were defrauded. Biden has promised to return to the lenient Obama policy.
Biden has also promised to make college-loan forgiveness easier if graduates go to work in government, the public schools, or government-approved nonprofits; he has said he would add a similar program to forgive up to $50,000 for employees already in the government sector and certain nonprofits. Biden would thus be directly funding the growth of his own constituency.
An even more expensive Biden goal is free college — having the two-thirds of Americans who don’t go to college pay a full subsidy to the one-third who do and who will earn more later. Here Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has punctured this utopian bubble. She has pointed out that free tuition would lead to “total government control.” College-aid counselors would be tasked with overseeing the “rationing of state-approved higher education options.” American colleges and universities would come to resemble “a failing K-12 school, with the customer service of the DMV to boot.” In pointing to the negative effects of free tuition, DeVos is echoing the long-ago insights of famed economist Armen Alchian.
Federal funding of all preschools, another Biden favorite, would be a subsidy to the middle class and upper middle class since lower-income children already get subsidized preschool. This is preschool for the children of the intelligentsia.
Biden’s most salient campaign promise for education was a massive increase in spending. He pledged to triple aid to schools with large percentages of low-income students, including federal subsidies for teacher salaries. This would amount to an additional $30 billion in federal education spending. The promise can be seen as reciprocal back-scratching in return for the campaign support he and other Democrats received from the teachers unions.
Why should the American public believe Biden when he says more money would fix education? When he was vice president, he told an audience of teachers that the $115 billion in the Obama stimulus package was enough “dollars to correct the education system.” “We have the resources” to do the job, he said. “We’ve been given all the ammunition” needed. Obama and Biden got these big bucks from the taxpayers, but the money didn’t fix the problem. Why should we believe Biden this time? Isn’t it simpler to see the money not as something that will boost student achievement, but as a subsidy to those who work in education and who are in Biden’s political constituency? From 1970 to 2010, spending on education increased 150 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, yet economist Eric Hanushek points out, “We do not see that the gap in attainment has gone away.”
It’s a shibboleth of the education field that money per se is what matters in improving public schools. The Biden–Harris campaign repeated this shibboleth. But time and again Hanushek has demolished that claim. He says that by concentrating on increased resources for schools, policymakers have ignored the “incentives within schools.”
In a detailed study of school finance in California, Hanushek, together with Susanna Loeb and Anthony Bryk, found that there is “essentially no relationship” between district performance and per-student spending. Putting more money in the existing system would fail to improve student outcomes notably.
Another Biden big-dollar promise is to “fully fund” 40 percent of the extra cost of teaching learning-disabled students. But pouring in all this money would lead to distortions and perverse incentives. To get as much money as possible, districts would surely over-identify learning-disabled students. Such over-classification would expand special-education programs that don’t need to be expanded, waste money on students who don’t need special education, mismatch students to programs they don’t belong in, and stigmatize children by mislabeling them.
Teachers and K-12 administrators are of course part of the Biden constituency, but so are social workers and health-care providers. Hence, another Biden promise is to expand the community school approach, combining schools with social services. The Swedish welfare state comes to school, if you will. But does this approach deliver better academic results? Michael Q. McShane explains: “Large-scale evaluations” have found “only small benefits to student achievement, at best.” Well, if it doesn’t work and it’s expensive, at least you funneled money to your political constituency.
All these promised Biden programs would aid and be supported by the education establishment and the agitators. But the agitators particularly favor certain objectives:
– The dogma that all sex differences are socially constructed — by pushing biological males who identify as transgender into girls’ sports, restrooms, and locker rooms.
– The dogma that merit is racist — dismissing concerns (as the Trump administration refused to do) about racial preferences in college admissions. This may extend to federal scrutiny of the disparate impact of admissions policies for honors and AP programs, magnet schools, and exam schools.
– The dogma that profit is sordid and ignoble — by reviving the Obama-era war on for-profit colleges, treating them as “predatory” outlaws who must be annihilated.
– The dogma that all group disparities are signs of oppression — by attacking suspensions and imposing racial quotas in K-12 student discipline, which would take the form of objecting to any perceived disparate impact of student disciplinary policies. In the case of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, such super-sensitive disciplinary policies brought on the shooter who murdered 17 people.
Last but not least, Biden has promised the agitators that he will bring back campus kangaroo courts in college judicial systems when judging sexual assault cases. In practice, however, Biden may not get his way since the regular courts have pushed back against campus courts for their lack of cross-examination and other due process for the accused.
It used to be that liberal educational reformers favored more money, standards and accountability, and charter schools. By comparison, conservatives favored standards and accountability, charter schools, and opportunity scholarships. But the education establishment, with the necessary assistance of the agitators, have driven the conservatives out of the education reform world.
Now liberals are doubling down on the money and stepping back from standards, accountability, and charter schools. They don’t understand conservatives’ concerns, or if they do, the liberals are ideologically hostile to them. Conservatives (and even liberals of yesterday) have less and less in common on educational policy with present-day liberals.
In contrast to the George W. Bush and Obama administrations’ promotion of standardized testing — to see whether children were learning — Biden called for rolling back standardized testing at a 2019 education forum sponsored by MSNBC, and he opposed the use of students’ test results in teacher evaluations, which the Obama administration had called for.
Drawing on language from the Biden–Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations, the Democratic Party platform says,
The evidence from nearly two decades of education reforms that hinge on standardized test scores shows clearly that high-stakes testing has not led to enough improvement in outcomes for students.… Democrats will work to end the use of such high-stakes tests and encourage states to … rely on multiple and holistic measures that better represent student achievement.
The platform also says that if used, such tests must be “reliable” and “evidence-based.” But the evidence says that holistic tests aren’t valid and reliable in the technical sense. And doing away with objective, standardized high-stakes annual tests would prevent parents, reporters, education analysts, and taxpayers from knowing how children are doing.
The Biden–Harris Democratic party platform likewise advocates additional restrictions on charter schools. The Biden–Sanders unity recommendations calls for no more federal aid to for-profit management of charter schools. It says that public schools (charters schools are non-centrally managed public schools) “should not be saddled with a private profit motive.” The platform also advocates “conditioning federal funding for new, expanded charter schools or for charter school renewals on a district’s review of whether the charter will systematically underserve the neediest students.” To give local districts additional rationales for not authorizing charter schools is to give an interested party a veto over its competition. During the presidential primary season Biden told the National Educational Association teachers union that charter schools “cannot come at the expense of the public school.” Thus he wants to give conventional public schools special privileges at the expense of parents who want their kids to go to charter schools.
Yes, harassing and restricting charters gives preferential treatment to teachers unions and school districts. But more devastatingly, restricting charters means restricting what are often the only escape from failing schools for children in low-income and minority families.
The agitators have made for-profit charter schools anathema, much like their war on for-profit colleges. Yet, as Frederick M. Hess points out, for-profits are more efficient and innovative because they are disciplined by the alert eyes of investors who are looking for the best place to put their money. For-profits are in a better position to offer employees highly remunerative long-term jobs and can draw on large funds raised in private-equity markets. Nonprofits, Hess notes, have “little incentive” to become early adopters of new and potentially more effective practices. New practices are all too often anathema in nonprofits because they make waves and upset staff routines.
The Biden administration is committed to pouring in cash and stepping away from standards, accountability, and charter schools. Yet the deficiencies of this approach are obvious. “If we only talk about the money side of the equation, that’s not enough by itself,” says Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform. Biden wants to make his constituency happy by avoiding accountability and, in particular, avoiding thoroughgoing structural reform that would put competitive pressure on schools by getting rid of unproductive disincentives and demonopolizing education.
Despite the rhetoric of the Biden campaign, money per se doesn’t boost student achievement. The educational programs that Biden wishes to promote haven’t worked. Yes, he may be able to subsidize his political constituency. Yes, he may be able to give the agitators some of what they want. But it will be at the expense of children and their education.
Williamson M. Evers is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and director of the institute’s Center on Educational Excellence. He was U.S. assistant secretary of education for planning, evaluation, and policy development during the administration of George W. Bush.