By Amanda Menas / photo: Joe Biden at NEA’s Strong Public Schools Presidential Forum in Houston on July 5, 2019.
“Education should be put more in the hands of educators. You should have more input on what you teach, how you teach it, when you teach it,” Joe Biden told more than 8,000 educators at the National Education Association’s virtual Representative Assembly on Friday. Biden joined the livestream not only to address the delegates, but to listen to educators’ concerns and answer their questions about what he will do as president to strengthen public education.
After enduring four years of a presidential administration that has turned its back on students, stripped funding from public schools, and left schools adrift with inadequate resources and guidance during a global pandemic, Biden has promised that if he is elected, educators will have not one, but two friends in the White House. His wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is a long-time educator and NEA member.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García rallied educators as she introduced Biden to the delegates, “There is never going to be anything as important as you do maybe in your entire life than what you’re going to do this year to protect democracy and to protect our country. We have got to stop the DeVos-Trump agenda.”
Throughout his candidacy, Biden has made it a priority to speak to educators and listen to their top concerns. He has promised that his administration will invest in public schools and listen to educators before setting education policy. He has promised to fire Betsy DeVos and replace her with an education secretary who has actually been an educator. He told the RA delegates specifically, “this is going to be a teacher-oriented Department of Education, and it’s not going to come from the top down. It will come from the teachers up.”
Biden stated that under Donald Trump’s failed leadership during the pandemic, more than 900,000 educator jobs have already been lost–and hundreds of thousands more educators could be laid off over the next few years. He acknowledged that schools need federal guidance and support now more than ever, and made his case that if he is president, he will work with doctors and scientists to mount an effective response to the crisis that will help public schools across the country operate safely.
As vice president during the recession that hit in 2009, Joe Biden helped save 400,000 educator jobs through his work overseeing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
But Biden also made it clear that his goals go beyond simply getting schools open again: “We also have a tremendous opportunity to go back, but not just go back — build back better,” Biden said. “[If] ever there was a time for big change, it’s now. We have to make this at least an era of action to reverse systemic racism … we can do it.” Biden’s plan for education includes specific strategies to dismantle systemic inequities and racism that prevents too many students of color from reaching their full potential.
Biden emphasized the profound effect that great educators have in a student’s life, saying, “You are the most important profession in the United States. You are the ones that give these kids wings. You give them confidence. You let them believe in themselves. You equip them.”
Three NEA members had the opportunity to ask Biden directly about racial justice, leadership, and unity during the townhall-style conversation.
How will you dismantle systemic racism?
Turquoise LeJeune Parker, a K-5 media specialist from North Carolina, told Vice President Biden about her role in teaching students about racial justice before asking what he will do as president. “It’s my duty to structure a curriculum that talks through all kinds of complex issues such as police brutality, how to fight it while staying safe, how to organize, and how they can come to terms with the possibility that they might be the next victim of white supremacy at absolutely no fault of their own,” said Parker.
She then asked Vice President Biden: “You talk a lot about fighting for the soul of the nation, but how will you work with others to change the systems that have benefited corrupt souls from day one?”
He started by acknowledging the importance of treating students with respect: “The first thing is to treat them with respect. Treat them with dignity. Tell them about keep holding their heads high, reminding them that everybody gets knocked down but you’ve got to get up. Reminding them that they can do anything at all, anything at all if they set their mind to it. You and I and others are fighting for them,” said Biden. During his administration, Biden has promised to make historic investments in public education, by tripling funding for Title I schools that serve students from lower-income families, who are disproportionately students of color.
In order for school districts to receive additional funding for the Title I schools, they must pay all educators a higher salary. These resources would also help close the $23 billion annual gap between majority white and nonwhite districts. Biden says this funding is “One of the single best instruments and investments we can make to address systemic inequality.”
Biden also discussed plans to fight racial inequality by taking on police reform, expanding Obamacare, and investing in historically black colleges and universities and small businesses.
How will you help public schools through the pandemic?
Paula McConnell, a paraprofessional from Michigan with 36 years of experience, asked Biden how he would provide much-needed leadership. As a Michigander, McConnell has first-hand experience with the damaging effects of Betsy DeVos’ agenda to direct public school money into voucher schemes for private schools. She has also been dismayed by the Trump administration’s failure to guide educators and students through the pandemic, and refusal to heed the advice of health experts.
“I’d like to know what you have to say to educators and parents that are so desperate for leadership on these issues but find none with the present administration,” asked McConnell.
Biden began his response by acknowledging that educators have made “tremendous sacrifices, shown so much creativity, done the hard work to make the abrupt shift to online learning. But the longer schools are closed and classes are remote, the more students, especially low-income students and students of color, fall behind,” Biden said.
He explained that under his plan, the federal government would be mobilized to make sure states and districts have the funding to keep educators on the job in the midst of this crisis, boost funding to cover the cost of PPE, extra cleaning, and new technologies and classroom redesign. He also told McConnell that he plans to scale research on how COVID-19 affects children and build a safer school best practice clearinghouse.
“I’m going to work with educators, child care providers, unions, communities and families on how to reopen safely,” said Biden.
How will you work to unite the country?
Just before the RA, Jimbo Lamb told EducationVotes as he prepared to speak with Joe, “It’s a huge honor, that I’m going to get to ask the next president a question about how we can make things better here in America for all Americans.”
Lamb, a high school math teacher from Pennsylvania, asked, “As President, what will you do to hear the voices of all Americans, not just those who support your agenda?” He said it was an important question because, “As educators, we teach our students to be respectful, kind, and to work with others, but our leaders fail to model this behavior.”
“If we don’t unite the country, we’re in deep, deep, deep, deep trouble,” said Biden, specifically highlighting his record of bipartisanship and his intention as president “ to lead, to listen, and to heal.”
In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden believes dignity for all Americans is essential. When planning the reopening of the economy and re-entry of students into schools, he sees a tremendous opportunity to build something that was better than when we left. He says, “We can’t afford to not open our eyes, ears, hearts. It’s on each of us to do our part to heal divisions in this country.
Biden summarized his goals for his administration by saying, “I’m going to fight for the changes I’ve referenced, but I’m also going to listen.”
Here’s how you can help
There’s no question that the future of public schools is on the line in this election.
If you want to stop the Trump-DeVos agenda and make sure that educators have two friends in the White House, join Educators for Joe today.