Biden Gives Teachers Union First Look at Education Platform

Former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, speaks during a Tuesday town hall meeting in Houston with a group of educators from the American Federation of Teachers.

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Fleshing out his 2020 campaign platform, former Vice President Joe Biden revealed Tuesday that his education goals will include federal support for low-income schools and higher salaries for public educators. 

Biden laid out the stakes at a town hall in Houston, Texas, sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, one of the country’s largest teachers unions.

Noting that public school teachers make almost a quarter less than workers with similar education backgrounds, Biden said he will triple funding under Title I, which allows schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families to offer educators competitive salaries as well as make other investments. Biden’s platform also calls for a reorganization of the Public Loan Service Forgiveness Program to better help teachers pay off their student loans.

“For so many young people, knowing they have a teacher believing in and fighting for them can make all the difference,” Biden said, speaking to a room of more than 200 Houston-area teachers. “It’s past time we treat and compensate our educators as the professionals they are, and that we make a commitment that no child’s future will be determined by zip code, parents’ income, race, or disability.”

Apart from embracing universal pre-kindergarten, Biden says his administration would eliminate funding gaps between white and nonwhite and rich and poor school districts, while also improving teacher diversity and fostering school vocational training and partnerships between high schools, community colleges and employers.

Discussing these goals in an interview, Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said state cooperation will be key to Biden’s progress.

“Just having a presidential administration say we’re going to pay teachers more doesn’t make it a reality,” Finney, who also is a professor of graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Education. “While I agree wholeheartedly with the underlying principles he sort of lays out, the federal government isn’t really in a position to enact those without strong support from the state.”

Dominic Gullo, a professor at Drexel University’s School of Education, said that he saw enormous potential in the plan, particularly in Biden’s initiative to begin focusing on children’s education at birth.

“Research tells us that whether or not children ‘make it’ educationally, are often due to factors that begin at birth and not in kindergarten and first grade,” Gullo said in an email Wednesday. “If policies and practices were in place that address this, it would go far to making it possible for Biden’s goals for children and families to be accomplished and successful.”

When it comes to many of Biden’s goals for education reform, states are in the driver’s seat. When the federal government offers funding to incentivize certain programs, Finney noted that states can participate or they can walk away.

A feasible way to enact many portions of his program, she said, would be to imitate the actions of President George H.W. Bush who worked with President Bill Clinton when he was the Chairman of the National Governors Association as the governor of Arkansas. They set national education goals, Finney said, but it was the states that really carried it out.

“Bush understood how to work with states,” she said. “You can’t just say the federal government is going to come in and solve this problem when the authority rests with states and locality.”

Finney also suggested that Biden could achieve his education goals by providing strong incentives for state action via government funding, as is done for Medicaid, which all 50 states voluntarily participate in.

“That would be powerful,” Finney said.

Referencing Biden’s plan for universal pre-kindergarten, Gullo noted that it would be important to additionally make investments that ensure all pre-kindergarten teachers would have “a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education/child development.” 

Gullo also expressed support for Biden’s plan to raise teacher’s salaries.

“By raising the salaries of teacher to those levels that he proposes, not only will it enhance the self-worth of those teachers in the profession,” Gullo said. “It will also encourage excellent teacher candidates to go into education who might not have done so otherwise because today’s teacher salaries do not provide a living wage.”

As for helping students pay off their school loans, Gullo said Biden’s policy is a good one but not a new one. 

“When I was an undergraduate in education, I had school loans,” Gullo said. “I’m not sure what the federal policy was, but after I graduated and started teaching, for every year that I taught, one-tenth of my loan was forgiven. So, if I taught for 10 years, I no longer had any school loans. Additionally, as long as I taught, I didn’t have to pay on my school loan. This was definitely an encouragement to college students to go into education and remain in education.”

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