ByJorge G. DeLeón
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way […]” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
The Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education.
“We are winning in state after state, in the past six years, we’ve doubled the number of private school choice programs to 50, the number of private school choice states to 25, plus Washington, D.C., and doubled the number of students currently benefiting from private school choice to 400,000. All told, together, we’ve helped more than a million kids in private school choice programs, and we’re just getting started.” Betsy DeVos. American Federation for Children Policy Summit. 2016
In the mindset of the Covid-19 crisis we devised coping mechanisms, we have been earnestly searching for silver linings to the roster of calamities society as a whole and individuals in particular are enduring every day since early 2020. November 3, 2020 arrived, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were elected as the replacements of Trump/Pence. With the decision of 81 million voters to put the direction and the reigns of the country in the hands of responsible civil servants, the citizenry created its own silver linings of sorts. No more Trump, better management of the Covid-19 crisis, a bold economic recovery plan, more progressive and enlightened views for the future of the United States. If the future of the nation is built in our schools, perhaps not in the short term, but in the proverbial long reaching arc of history, then let us aim at better public K12 education, more affordable colleges and a wider access to apprenticeship programs.
Tempting prudence, let’s paraphrase Charles Dickens, with a tweak. It was the worst of times because Betsy DeVos arrived at the Department of Education, it was the best of times when she lost her job four years later. Secretary DeVos exited, and the Department of Education was left acutely bruised, after trying ceaselessly to destroy it, to turn it into the political arm of the billionaire club of ‘school reformers’ who vigorously want to privatized public education. These reformers want to break public education so badly, that in their minds, it would be unrecognizable after the surgery. There was damage inflicted, deep and long lasting. On policy, DeVos was a failure due to several factors: the lingering indifference of the White House towards education, the rejection from Congress to fund her initiatives, and also because of the pushback from voters both on the left and on the right to the defunding of public schools, even in deep red states such as Kentucky. However, harm was done, and it will be incumbent on the Biden administration to correct the wrongs and reroute the educational goals of the federal government.
The Trump/Pence 2020 re-election campaign website only listed two goals for the Department of Education: 1. Provide School Choice to Every Child in America. 2. Teach American Exceptionalism. Nothing else was added or explained about these goals, but the message was clear. School choice was code for the privatization of public education. Exceptionalism was code for white supremacy.
The word defund has become a fighting word when applied to police departments. But it is as offensive when applied to public school services. Defunding public schools is even more horrifying when concrete plans are exposed, and the citizens acknowledge how devastating it could be to their households, neighborhoods and communities. These are just some of the attempted defunding plans of the former DeVos Department of Education:
- School Choice Initiatives. It is a catchy name, but is euphemism for taxpayers funding, vouching of private, religious and private or semi-private charter schools.
- Removal of federal programs for the most in need in the name of fiscal conservatism and school reform.
- After school care for poor children. Many poor working parents are not able to pick up their children right after school hours. Most K12 schools end classes between 2-4 p.m. For most, the price of after-school care is unaffordable. During after-school care the children are helped with homework assignments, have more playtime, and are nourished while being cared in a protected environment.
- Mental health services for children. This is an essential service. The manifestation of mental health issues is wide in all communities, but where is less detected and highly prevalent is in poor communities, with no regard of race. In some of these communities there is less access to mental healthcare for a variety of reasons: social stigma, lack of information, police intervention in domestic or public incidents instead of mental health officials, shortage of centers of mental-health treatment in these neighborhoods. Serious issues like depression, verbal and physical abuse, bullying, racism, domestic violence, drug addiction, hunger, are just some of the burdens even preschoolers endure or are exposed to frequently. Middle schoolers and high school students not only face those problems, but new ones arise as they begin to deal with the question of Who am I? Suicide is higher in adolescents who do not find the necessary support when they identify themselves as belonging to the LGBTQ community, and many suffer in agonizing silence their fear of abandonment by their love ones, and the lurking possibility of violence from homophobes.
- Help for under-privilege high school students to attend college. A large number of these students are the first in their families to attend college or even to graduate from high school. For many, the support they need, both economic and academic, cannot be anticipated from their families once they venture into the uncharted territory of higher education.
This was just the tip of the iceberg of the ambitious scope of DeVos’ plans for the demise of public education. Fortunately, many of these attempts were thwarted by Congress, by voters and sadly, by incompetence. According to Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire, authors of A Wolf at The Schoolhouse Door and cowriters of a keen opinion article in The New York Times (Trump’s Longest-Serving Cabinet Official May Start a Revolution, Dec. 1, 2020), the wounds inflicted are disturbing.
Under the Trump administration the damages perpetrated and attempted against American public education were impressive and traumatic. The daring attempt to defund public schools remains a future menace and may actually come into fruition if there is an eventual alignment of forces in the executive and the legislative branches in future elections. An even more radicalized version of the Republican party may actually win. The fluidity of present American politics and cultural currents, the newly discovered and perilous fragility of constitutional institutions, the threat of violence and anarchy from radical white supremacists, the vicious spread of disinformation, have made the traditionally reliable compass of political predictions turn aimlessly in its axis; even seasoned and serious analysts do not dare to look too far into the future of the United States.
The Biden/Harris administration, as of January 20, 2021, began to focus with assertiveness and unapologetically, to serving the needs of the American people. Covid-19 created a manifold of crises that, by not being addressed responsibly by the previous administration, festered for most of 2020. The pandemic has affected all aspects of personal and public lives. It has strained healthcare, labor, commerce, housing, and alimentation to the limits. K12 school children and teachers were, since the beginning of the crisis, one of the largest blocks of citizens marred by the virus. The Biden/Harris administration has to do repairs while building new bridges. That is never an enviable task for any head of government or any CEO.
The Miguel Cardona’s Department of Education
“There is no higher duty for a nation than to build better paths, better futures for the next generation to explore. For too many students, public education in America has been a flor pálida: a wilted rose, neglected, in need of care. We must be the master gardeners who cultivate it, who work every day to preserve its beauty and its purpose.” Miguel Cardona. From his acceptance speech of his nomination as Secretary of Education for the Biden/Harris administration. (December 23, 2020).
The new Department of Education will be led by Miguel Cardona, born in 1975 in Meriden, Connecticut. The descendant of Puerto Rican grandparents that settled in Connecticut. Miguel Cardona was the first in his family to receive a college degree. He also received a doctorate at the University of Connecticut. His doctoral dissertation addressed the achievement disparity of ELL (English Language Learners) and non-ELL students. His masters focused in bilingual and bi-cultural education. An elementary school teacher in Meriden school district for five years, and while still in his twenties, he became the youngest school principal in Connecticut. Ten years later he advanced to district assistant superintendent. In August 2019 the governor of Connecticut named him Commissioner of Education.
In Kindergarten, he was an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) student, since he barely spoke English at age five. The challenges faced by ELL students are close to his heart, he never forgot his first learning experiences.
Admired for this equanimity and sound mind under pressure, Miguel Cardona has received the enthusiastic support of influential organizations such as AFT (The American Federation of Teachers), NEA (National Education Association), Proyecto 20% (a national association of Hispanic organizations for equal representation in government), USW (United Steel Workers) among others. He is well regarded by his peers as a bridge and consensus builder, a problem solver, an astute and fair administrator, and a teacher.
All these accolades do not come without some pushback. His limited time as a classroom teacher make some critics wonder if he used his short tenure in the classroom, as many modern administrators do, as a springboard to move into the status of administration. In some districts with just three years in the classroom teachers can become administrators. The fact that Connecticut is a small state, gives fodder to other decriers. The state has less than 600,000 public school students, about half are white. Meriden school district has less than 9,000 students; it qualifies as a small district. Miguel Carmona has no experience managing districts the size of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami, not even mid-size metropolitan public districts like Albany or Honolulu. For some skeptics he is a big fish in a small pond. Others indicate that his short executive experience as Education Commissioner since 2019 is not enough to launch him into the national area. Nevertheless, not even his critics question his integrity and commitment to educate American children with more access to resources and equality.
Secretary Carmona will have to brave, like the rest of the administration, several titanic battles in the pursuit of President Biden’s agenda. Covid-19 being the greatest and present challenge, budgetary struggles with Congress, severe pushback from a 50/50 Senate where many members of the opposition still cast the five o’clock shadow of the Trumpian nightmare. Secretary Carmona will have to execute the Biden Educational agenda. These are some of the main promises for education of the Biden/Harris campaign:
Open public schools during the first 100 days.
Injecting $130 billion to make schools ready to open is a laudable, forward-thinking attempt to right things. Students learn better in the classroom. About half of public schools’ students are receiving their daily lessons online, and the results are not praiseworthy. It is not because teachers and students are not trying their best to teach and learn, but because the modality of distance learning is deficient. Teachers and students do best when they can see each other’s eyes, listen to their voices, and are wrapped and engaged in all the mysterious nuances of the face-to-face human experience. The to-and-fro of human dialogue is anemic when facilitated and filtered by technology.
But it may not happen in the first 100 days. The red zones where the virus is still actively dangerous are in the metropolitan areas where most public-school students live. In mid-February 2021, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines for the safe opening of schools. The data-driven guidelines are reasonable, but many school districts are still not prepared for fully open schools by following these guidelines. Some schools still do not have basic resources, like enough soap to keep the recommended hygiene standards, the costly classroom ventilation issues, physical distance of six feet (three feet distancing is being recommended and used in some districts), safety equipment and additional necessary provisions.
Many teachers feel unsafe and overburdened. They would prefer the classroom experience, but in school many teachers are pushed to teach in dual-modality: online and in-class students simultaneously. As of mid-February, only 28 states have added teachers to their priority list of vaccine recipients. Teachers with co-morbidities feel that if given the vaccines they will feel safer returning to school; others fear that despite the data, returning to class with pre-existing health conditions, could be a death-trap.
The hope is that the vaccine production, distribution and inoculation will increase by the end of spring or early summer. With a proper, aggressive and data-driven public information campaign, the government may change the minds of that roughly 30% of Americans who do not plan to get vaccinated and would jeopardize the goal of herd immunity of 85%>.
-Support our educators by giving them the pay and dignity they deserve.
It seems self-explanatory for those who agree with this commitment, but it will be expensive. Most civic-minded citizens who are interested in the common good, conservative or progressive, support the idea of better pay for teachers; until taxes are mentioned. Then, most run to their respective corners. The ‘school reformers’ claim that schools are over-funded, and the excessive waste could be used to promote school choice programs, a.k.a. privatization. The progressives claim that teachers’ salaries, together with true professional respect and considerations, will attract young, bright-eyed college graduates and retain them in the classroom, without overburden them with excessive preparations and duties that so quickly dim their dynamic illusions.
This goal is not without teeth, it not just the arrangement of musical keys played during political campaigns. The funding for salaries is forefront. Here, there is an alignment of the goals for better teacher salaries of the then individual candidates Biden and Harris. Kamala Harris, the presidential candidate, insisted in the importance of professionalism of teacher salaries.
The forgiveness of student loans for educators is in the works. To serve the public through public service may motivate college graduates to try teaching as a career of prestige. Being relieved of the excessive weight of higher education debt by paying back through public service adds a sensitive and dignified focus on being professionals in public education.
The intent to work in tandem with teacher unions casts off the much-maligned view of the conservative interpretation of labor relations where labor syndicates are seen as an obstacle to economic progress. This attitude was championed and promulgated by Ronald Reagan, and parroted by both entrepreneurs and profit-driven elected officials. The voice of unions does not aim only to improve the professional conditions and benefits of teachers, but also aim at the implementation of better school programs.
And additional, visionary, and necessary part of this plan is to promote mentoring programs in the teaching profession. When these programs are well planned and executed, the results in teacher preparation, retention and growth are significant. Teacher to teacher mentoring allows the younger teacher, who is anxious, a bit confused, and full of ideas, to learn and lean on the experience and expertise of a seasoned teacher. A good mentor provides a level-headed view of the tasks at hand and provides emotional support during the first few years. A mentored teacher will grow faster than a rookie educator left alone to fend for her/himself. Also, teachers can be community mentors for parents with students at risk, community centers, club sponsors with community outreach goals.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the recognition of the meaning and importance of essential workers. The supermarket clerk, the delivery driver, the nurse and assistant nurse, the bus driver, the EMT operatives, the cop and the teacher, among many other service providers are being recognized and applauded by the population at large. This new-found acknowledgement may well be an avenue to enhance the dignity of the teaching profession.
-Invest in resources for our schools so students grow into physically and emotionally healthy adults, and educators can focus on teaching.
The Biden administration plans to triple fund Title I schools (schools where over 50% of the students are from low-income families). There is a gap of $28 billion in the funding of predominantly white and predominantly non-white schools. A large number of predominantly non-white schools are Title I. In the hope that this funding is implemented soon, free PreK and after-school programs will be available to more children in poorer communities. Teachers will be able to focus on teaching because they will have less hungry and better prepared students in the classroom, and more receptive and less stressed parents willing to support the teachers that serve their children.
-Ensure that no child’s future is determined by their zip code, parents’ income, race, or disability.
This noble goal is part of the explicit and implicit purpose of the American Dream and American Exceptionality. To arrive there, we must take bold and fair steps. There is urgent need to return to the Obama-era civil rights guidelines rescinded by former Secretary DeVos. Diffuse and eliminate racial biases and discrimination by school boards, parent-teacher associations, administrators, teachers and other students. Address and correct the disproportionate disciplining of black students nationwide. This can be achieved with well-planned and clear-eyed programs under the scrutiny of official and community members, with the realignment of curricula that promote diversity to foster a better civic society. If racism is learned at home and reinforced in the community, openness to diversity can also be taught as an existential experience in the school, in the classroom, in the sports programs, clubs, if also reinforced by the community. It is already happening, despite recent events in the nation.
There is a 40% deficit in the promised funding for individuals who should be protected by the Disabilities Education Act. This gap, when filled, will provide the presently underfunded programs these children so badly need.
Teach respect for students’ sexual orientation and the rights of transgender individuals. Provide support for each of these students and their families in every school, by having available in-school trained personnel. Teachers, administration and staff must also be trained to respect, support and refer students to the counselor or school psychologists. The administration plans to increase the amount of school psychologists and social workers in every school. Implement a strong curriculum for civics education to fuel civic engagement, with the purpose of creating socially active citizens as we form socially active students. In an era of disinformation, by educating better informed students, the schools will be cultivating better informed adults.
Bridge the digital divide. This is needed now but is dependent in large part on funding and building a better national infrastructure. Students in poor urban neighborhoods and rural communities suffer a substantial disparity in broadband and even basic internet access. Unattended and neglected access to necessary services is a perpetuation of inequality. Build Back Better plans to invest in the improvement of decaying and non-existent infrastructure, broadband access is part of its wider scope.
-Provide every middle and high school student a path to a successful career.
The Biden administration understands that not every student is meant to go to college. Going to college after high school has been the prevailing mantra students have heard for over two generations. The original intention had noble, but short-sighted purposes. There was disregard or less attention paid to trade schools and training programs for those who did not have the intention to go to college but could still find excellence in learning trades. These workers are essential to the building and maintenance of the social infrastructure. If income is the measurement of success in this country, many trades produce higher incomes that some professions requiring college degrees.
This administration is proposing a federal-state program for funding of two-year college education through community colleges. FLOTUS Dr. Jill Biden, herself a community college professor, has said that community colleges are one of the best kept secrets to promote higher education for citizen of every walk of life, from the recently high school graduate who would need certifications for certain types of employment, like paralegals, medical assistants, nurse assistants, to professionals who could hone in or receive additional training on new technological demands in their fields. It would give opportunities for adults with a high school education to pursue new professional goals or skills. Students who enjoy and thrive in their first two years in college can transfer to a four-year college afterwards. Community colleges will have access to grants to improve their services.
In 2014, then Vice-President Biden, was given the task to create a strategic system to improve the nation’s workforce training programs for “ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs.” One of the sturdiest emphasis was on modernizing apprenticeships programs and involve trade unions, businesses, community colleges and other agencies to employ as many skilled workers as needed. As president, Mr. Biden plans to invest $50 billions dollars in this endeavor. It is promising that the focus on skilled workers may meet the needs and demands of our collapsing infrastructure.
-Start investing in our children at birth. In the campaign trail Joe Biden was emphatic about this point. The PreK program for 3- and 4-year-old must be of high quality. Families that qualify as low or middle income should receive tax credits of $8,000 for one child, or $16,000 for two or more children. This tax credit would ameliorate the cost of child care. Expand child care for after-school, even weekends and during the summer. If parents aim at improving their professional skills by attending communities’ colleges, funding should be provided for in-campus child care while attending classes. Entice business with tax credits to provide child care facilities at their premises.
In the realm of higher education, Biden’s plans are even more daring and compassionate. For families earning $125K or less attending public universities or historically black colleges would be tuition free. As mentioned before, provide free tuition for community colleges and training programs of high quality, for everyone. In addition, invest $50 billion to enhance the workforce via apprenticeship and community college programs. For students or graduates with student loan debt, provide forgiveness up to $10K. Through Pell Grants and a wider array of financial aid student will get assistance to offset the cost of housing and food.
According the Harvard Gazette (December 12, 2020): “Trump’s proposed budgets for the past four years sought to eliminate NEA and NEH funding. His spending plan for fiscal year 2021 lists both groups under the heading “Stopping Wasteful and Unnecessary Spending.” (Congress has repeatedly voted to keep such funding intact.)” Between January 20, 2017 and January 19, 2021, the arts were exterminated like dangerous weeds in Trump’s garden. As the arts return to the White House, and art programs are better funded, and school children sing and play music, and the art students imagine in color and form, and the thespian performs at the school play, the schools will also become beacons of hope for the future of this country. At the dawn of the 21st century, there was an urgency for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) implementation in our schools. Almost twenty years into the new millennium a necessary adjustment was deemed necessary, and STEM became STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math). This apparent realization of something new and wise, is actually ancient knowledge. The arts are as necessary as the other disciplines. It is only by passing through the gates of the arts and the humanities that science, technology, engineering and math acquire context and meaning; for those disciplines are for the service of humanity, and the arts are the celebration of the mystery of being human. It is hard to find a young child who does not enjoy some form of artistic expression before or while they learn their A, B, C’s and their numbers.
The ambition of the educational program of the Biden administration is based on common sense and a sober diagnosis of the reality that engulf us and where we must act. The Covid-19 crisis must be defeated as soon and as much as possible with unwavering courage and steely determination. There is no place for naiveté when the stakes are so high. It will not be easy to move forward with these proposals, but the goals must be achieved. Only sacrifices that are sustained by hope are worth trying. What fuels hope is love, courageous love, intrepid, daring love. Only then hope will be able to thrive, with eyes on the prize.
“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. But if you want to walk far, walk together.” Ratan Tata