Most control over education is local. The curriculum your school uses, what kind of report cards and progress reports they send home, extracurricular offerings, and all of the things that make your school a special community—those decisions are made close to home. But the US Department of Education (ED) still has an important role to play in how schools are run.
ED, led by the Secretary of Education, controls matters like how students’ rights are protected in school; whether states are required to test students and in which grades; and, critically, how federal funding is allocated. With a new administration in town, here are a few things to look for:
1. President-elect Biden is in favor of reopening more schools this spring, but he wants to invest in additional safety measures. Biden has pledged to reopen “most” schools during his first 100 days in office. To do that, he has proposed a 100-day national mask mandate, increased testing and PPE in schools, and funding to improve safety measures in school buildings. He is also pushing for educators to be prioritized in the early phases of vaccination.
2. He wants ED to take a more hands-on role in managing the pandemic. This would include offering states more concrete guidance on reopening, and collecting data from states on districts’ reopening plans and virus transmission in schools.
3. He supports releasing some student loan borrowers from debt, but questions remain about how far this would go. Outgoing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos extended a moratorium on loan repayments through January 31, but that date is coming up fast—and the Biden administration has to make a decision about whether to just extend it again or do more, particularly in the face of ongoing economic hardship. President-elect Biden has said he doesn’t want borrowers to have to choose between paying down their loans and paying their rent, but what that means in practical terms remains to be seen.
4. President-elect Biden has nominated a veteran educator as Secretary of Education. After years as a teacher and principal, Miguel Cardona, Biden’s pick, most recently served as Connecticut’s education commissioner. He has a track record of advocating for low-income families and students of color, and he has been a voice in support of safe and equitable school reopenings.
5. To test or not to test; that is still a question. DeVos waived the federal testing requirement for the 2019-2020 school year, but the spring 2021 tests remain a big question. Cardona has indicated that he supports testing in 2021 (Connecticut, under his leadership, will carry out state testing this year) as a means of identifying where there may be significant learning gaps. But it’s unclear still whether the Biden administration will mandate tests this year, and if so, what kind of stakes—if any—would be attached.
“President-elect Biden is in favor of reopening more schools this spring, but he wants to invest in additional safety measures.”
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