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Nov. 28, 2020

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After four years of Betsy DeVos, what a Biden presidency will mean for education in Washington

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SEATTLE — It’s hard to say exactly if, or how, four years of education policy under Betsy DeVos changed anything about schooling in Washington state.

Many of her landmark policies — promulgating school vouchers, rolling back Obama-era civil rights rules — didn’t make much of a dent in Democratic states. Education leaders in Washington say President Donald Trump’s administration put them on constant defense, fending off executive orders, or finding new ways to pay for things that federal funding suddenly stopped covering.

For blue states, a Biden administration is likely to be very different from President Trump’s — but also from former President Barack Obama’s

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris campaigned on big promises for education. Some of them — restoring Obama-era protections, guiding schools on COVID-19 reopening, beefing up the federal Office for Civil Rights — could happen with the stroke of the pen. Others, like pledges to boost funding, will depend on how cooperative Congress is amid a weakened economy.

Already, officials are noticing a change in tone. The months of the late summer and early fall were punctuated by Trump’s threats, often tweeted, on getting students back into school buildings. Biden has promised coherent guidelines on school reopening amid COVID-19, something he can do from the executive branch.

He has also promised to triple funding for Title I, the federal program for schools with high concentrations of students in poverty, and to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at the level that law promised. That’s a change many state leaders would welcome. But, just like any additional COVID-19 aid package, it would likely have to go through Congress.

There are still big questions about how the Biden administration will land on standardized testing and school accountability, but early signs hint at more alignment with teachers unions.

Biden’s wife Jill is, after all, a community college professor — and a member of the National Education Association union.

No longer playing defense in Washington

Many families who are busy living, working and caring for children might have trouble parsing out which directives come from state, federal or local government, said Erin Okuno, executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. Agencies, she said, need to do a better job explaining themselves.

“What I saw, and what a lot of people felt, was relief that we don’t have to worry about four years of Trump administration politics,” she said. For example, there was chaos over whether the COVID-era school lunch policies giving all students free meals, regardless of family income, would extend through this school year. (The Trump administration ultimately did so in October.)

For their part, state leaders say they’re ready to stop reacting constantly to news from the White House. “There were many times where something would come out, but we would have a protection of state law, where we would override any rescinding of the letter or anything that happened,” said Michaela Miller, Washington’s deputy superintendent at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

After DeVos moved to revoke federal protections for transgender students, state schools chief Chris Reykdal responded with a notice to district leaders, saying nothing would change in Washington.

“Our state has a long and proud history of embracing differences,” he wrote at the time. “I will not back down from that.”

Many education leaders in Washington are breathing a sigh of relief that they’ll be able to focus on their own priorities instead.

Sharonne Navas, co-founder and executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition, said she expects the state to regain the “ability to get back to some kind of track, not having to fight with the federal administration on several different tracks.”

Changes in K-12 education — and education politics

No one is expecting a repeat of the Obama years. “Even by the end of the Obama administration, they understood that testing accountability and competition was not the way in which you would improve public schools,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union.

Weingarten noted that the plan Biden released with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) marked a change in rhetoric. “That’s the first time in years, decades, where you saw a Democratic platform that says this (testing and accountability) is not meeting the needs of students,” Weingarten said.

One area where observers expect Biden to differ from Obama: charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. The last few presidents fully embraced charters.

Biden’s transition website doesn’t mention charters once; the only place where they are referenced is in the Biden/Sanders plan, which cited the need for “more stringent guardrails.”

While some Obama-era Democrats favored charter schools, the DeVos administration lumped charters under the school choice banner with school vouchers, a third rail in Democratic politics. “Our key concern with a Biden-Harris administration is with the degree to which some of the rhetoric on the campaign trail seeps into their policies,” said Nina Rees, who leads the National Association for Public Charter Schools.

Washington has a handful of charter schools, so that paradigm shift likely won’t change things here dramatically — though, in the future, it could be harder to start a new one.

And then there’s the question of leadership. With a new presidency comes forecasting and jockeying for cabinet roles. More often than not, the early names are the product of organizations that want to get their people in the mix.

Lists that have circulated among national news outlets have included the names of union leaders — a departure from the philosophy of the Obama administration — and Seattle’s own superintendent, Denise Juneau. In a statement Friday, Juneau said she was aware of the speculation and supports Biden and Harris, but “to date, I have not been contacted about the position.”

Weingarten’s name has also been on several of those lists. Would she do it? “I’m honored about my name being mentioned,” she said. “I’m also really happy to work with the Biden administration from the position that I’m in.”

More civil rights enforcement?

When new presidents and their staff take over, their first days are often marked by undoing the work of their predecessors.

That was certainly the case for DeVos, said Dianne Piche, a civil rights attorney who served as deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights under the Obama administration.

Piche said she expects to see a “reversal of the reversals.”

For example, in 2017, DeVos rolled back Obama’s guidance that allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity, among other protections. Biden has promised to reinstate the Obama policy, which also extended other Title IX rights — such as the ability to participate in sports and use locker rooms in accordance with identity — to transgender students.

When Biden was in office as vice president, Piche said, he would show up to events related to Title IX.

DeVos also changed Obama-era rules on sexual assault investigation and adjudication at schools, creating a process that gave more rights to the accused. The Biden administration wants to change that process, but that might take a little longer to reverse, because of the rule-making process DeVos used to enshrine her framework.

Another civil rights change: The Obama administration created guidance to show districts how they could legally integrate their schools. DeVos moved to pull that back, too.

DeVos did move to expand civil rights protections around religion. “She just picked and chose what she wanted to do and it was a mess,” Weingarten said.

Piche said she expects the Biden administration to initiate investigations into school districts that might be unfairly disciplining some groups of students over others. (When DeVos changed those rules, Reykdal, too, said nothing would change here.)

She also expects the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to again become more muscular, initiating more districtwide investigations instead of narrowly responding to individual complaints.

These changes might have had a less obvious impact in places like Washington, which have state laws on the books that let students use the bathrooms of their choosing.

The absence of these rules, Navas said, meant people were “relying on the state to keep itself accountable.”

In Washington, between January 2017 and mid-November 2020, the Washington OSPI Equity & Civil Rights Office received 59 discrimination complaints; 23 were opened for investigation, and two are currently under evaluation for investigation.

While she was in OCR, Piche said inequities arose in surprising places — and a newly empowered OCR might surface them here after Biden takes office.

Community college and affordability in the spotlight

In 2012, when Jill Biden — then second lady in the Obama administration — visited a South Seattle College hangar at Boeing Field, Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap said she felt “seen by the White House in a way I don’t think I had ever felt as an educator before.”

With Jill Biden as the first community college professor to become first lady, she hopes community colleges will again gain visibility and support from the federal government.

Higher education leaders echoed that feeling of hope after what Randy Hodgins, the University of Washington’s vice president for external affairs, called an “exhausting” four years.

“This has been, from the very beginning of this administration, with the Muslim travel ban to the most recent Department of Homeland Security (effort) to severely limit the duration of status for international students,” Hodgins said, trailing off. “We’ve just been reacting constantly to a barrage of rules and executive orders. Sometimes we were battling a couple a week.”

The Trump administration, he said, rarely consulted with the higher education community. He hopes the Biden administration will be different.

People with ties to the Biden campaign were in touch with Washington educators when they were drawing up their college affordability plans, said Michael Meotti, who heads the Washington Student Achievement Council. “It’s not an accident that a lot of his affordability platform looks like the Washington College Grant,” which gives students with financial need tuition help.

Many of Biden’s college affordability plans will be subject to Congressional approval. Meotti said in Washington, students who might get more federal money would not see their state grants decreased.

Local college leaders also expressed hope that the Biden administration would better protect students and alumni from student debt, predatory lenders and for-profit colleges.

Washington’s colleges face financial concerns. Higher education is Washington’s biggest source of discretionary funding and took a big hit in 2008. Hodgins said that unlike the Great Recession, different sources of the UW’s revenue — dorms, food services, football games and hospitals — have suffered.

Rimando-Chareunsap, who is now South Seattle College’s president, said that because of COVID-19, she will have to make significant budget cuts.

“We’re seeing all of our revenue sources decrease fast at the same time,” she said. “What we’re working to do is to stay values-based. … How do we make decisions that preserve student instruction and can still advance equity work serving diverse populations well?”

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