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Biden team to reverse policies quickly

By Erica L. Green

© The New York Times Co.

WASHINGTON » Like most federal agencies, the Education Department followed President Donald Trump’s lead in seeking to undo the legacy of his predecessor, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos diligently tore into President Barack Obama’s policies.

President-elect Joe Biden is planning to return the favor.

The contrasts in Trump-era education policy and the incoming Biden agenda are stark. DeVos, a lifelong booster of private schools and opponent of teachers unions, set out to reduce the Education Department’s footprint by proposing cuts to public school funding and narrowing the department’s enforcement of federal education laws and civil rights.

The incoming first lady, Jill Biden, is a community college

professor and member of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. The Biden administration has promised to increase resources for public schools, expand civil rights advocacy for marginalized students and reassert department leadership in policymaking.

On the most pressing issue facing education, reopening schools during the pandemic, the Biden administration has signaled a dramatically different approach.

The Trump administration has demanded that schools reopen, despite severe budget constraints and confusing health guidelines, while the Education Department has all but absolved itself of tracking the virus’s effect and offering solutions. The Biden campaign has promised federal relief funding and assistance for schools to address the devastating effects of the pandemic on the academic trajectory of their most vulnerable students.

But the president-elect’s closeness with the powerful teachers unions has raised concerns. Unions have come under fire from parents and school leaders who say their opposition to in-person instruction conflicts with science and students’ well-being. DeVos posted a series of articles on Twitter that have questioned the unions’ roles.

“When unions win, kids lose,” she said.

With a likely Republican Senate and a narrow Democratic majority in the House, Biden will struggle to accomplish some of his loftiest policy goals. He has promised to bolster funding for special education, institute universal prekindergarten and triple funding for a federal program that helps schools serving high concentrations of students from low-income families, devoting some of that funding to teacher salaries. In higher education, he has promised free public college, expanding federal financial aid and canceling some student debt.

Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s policy director, told reporters last month that Biden would “be able to get some big, bold education legislation passed and certainly immediate relief for our schools and our educators, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not also going to take executive action within existing authority.”

The Biden administration plans to restore Obama-era civil rights guidance — rescinded by DeVos — that allowed transgender students to choose their school restrooms, addressed the disproportionate disciplining of Black students and pressed for diversity in colleges and K-12 classrooms. The restoration of those guidance documents can be done immediately because they were not put through the regulatory process or enacted into law.

Undoing what is arguably DeVos’ most formidable accomplishment — rules for federally funded schools investigating sexual misconduct — could be tougher. The incoming administration has vowed to dismantle those rules. As vice president, Biden personally helped introduce the Obama-era guidelines on campus sexual misconduct that DeVos reversed through a formal rule-making.

But unlike guidance documents, which do not carry the force of law, and other DeVos regulatory measures that have been overturned by courts, the sexual misconduct rules have held up against legal challenges. The rules would have to be overturned through legislation or rewritten through the regulatory system, a process that could take years.

Biden’s team also is eyeing DeVos’ formal rules that tightened Obama-era regulations on loan forgiveness for students defrauded by their colleges and that eased oversight of for-profit colleges. Those rules also could require regulatory action if they survive court challenges.

The team Biden has named to help the Education Department through the transition signaled the direction he intends to take.

Leading the team is Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Palo Alto, Calif.- based Learning Policy Institute, who also oversaw the education transition for Obama in 2008. Darling-Hammond, a veteran researcher and policymaker in arenas such as desegregation, school finance and teacher preparation, was considered a contender to become Biden’s secretary of education but took herself out of the running, saying she was committed to her work in California.

The transition team’s strong representation from former Obama-era officials and teachers unions has been met with mixed reactions.

Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, which represents low-income parents and parents of color, said the composition of the team made her worried that the Biden administration might stack the government with people who are “interested in fortifying the status quo that has been failing so many of our kids.”

“This is the biggest table right now,” she said of the transition team, “and I don’t see parent groups, family groups, community groups present.” She added, “It seems we’re back to the same old, ‘We’re going to do things to you, not with you.’ ” Union leaders top speculative shortlists of contenders to be the next education secretary and undoubtedly will influence Biden’s choice. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelsen García, a past president of the National Education Association, are among the names mentioned.

Other names include superintendents of districts such as Baltimore and Seattle, and Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., a former National Teacher of the Year.

Weingarten said she was honored by the mention but that she would be “really happy to work with the Biden administration as the president of the AFT.”

“The Biden-Harris administration has the potential to enable a renaissance in public education,” she said.

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