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Policy director: Biden education agenda includes pandemic, mental health, equity

The United States education system has become "fundamentally disrupted," thanks to the coronavirus pandemic combined with the lack of full-throated support from many of our elected officials for public schools, educators and children, Stef Feldman, Joe Biden's national policy director, told Education Writers Association members in late October webinar. That, in turn, has thrown everyday life into turmoil for millions of people, she said.

The presumptive president-elect and former US vice president considers education to begin with child care and wants to see policies envelop those early-childhood centers as well as Pre-K, K-12 and higher education. He envisions "cutting-edge, energy-efficient, innovative schools with technology and labs to prepare our students for the jobs of the future," Feldman said during the webinar.

Five-step plan

Biden's five-part plan for getting schools up and running again begins with giving local school officials the latitude to do what's best for their unique situations while still providing federal guidance, Feldman said. He would mandate nationwide mask use and contact tracing to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and would provide emergency funding for schools -- through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Stafford Act and, ideally, emergency congressional authorizations -- to help with pandemic-related teacher shortages, class sizes, ventilation improvements and more. He also intends to address the quality of remote learning and provide ideas and resources for coping with the knowledge gap created by the disruption. Ultimately, she said, Biden wants to provide something schools have not had from the federal government during the pandemic: "clear, simple guidance that is executable."

Emotional and physical safety

Feldman noted that the presumptive president-elect has long been a Title IX advocate and thus would reverse many of President Donald Trump's executive orders that disenfranchised students experiencing sexual assault and from transgender students. The goal, she said, is safe spaces for all students, both in K-12 and on college campuses.

Webinar participants learned that Biden would like to see some FEMA and emergency money go toward mental health to ease the strain the pandemic has put on students. That could involve adding more mental health professionals to schools.

Creating financial equity among schools

General funding for education also is on Biden's priority list, Feldman said, and he plans to help delete disparities between wealthy and low-income districts by tripling the current $15 billion for Title I schools, who first would use the money to add pre-K and ensure "robust" curriculum across schools. Increased teacher pay, money toward professional development and assistance with student loans for teachers also will be in the works. To make sure policies take educators and students into consideration, Feldman said Biden wants to work hand in hand with the National Educators Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

The former vice president feels strongly about low-performing schools, Feldman said in the webinar, and wants to ensure they receive basic needs, such as school supplies, school nurses and enough teachers. He would roll back efforts Trump has made toward reversing desegregation policies both at the K-12 and higher-education levels. Grants, she said, would be another tool to help diversify student populations.

Other topics, how to fund it all

In the conversation, Feldman also addressed Biden's thoughts on public funding for-profit and nonprofit charter schools, wrapping K-12 school building repair into an infrastructure measure, and the possibility of a second waiver for Every Student Succeeds Act testing requirements.

However, Biden's solution for paying for much of this -- increasing taxes on the uber-wealthy and big corporations that game the tax code and use loopholes to avoid paying a fair amount -- may be hard to achieve if Congress stays divided, the Education Writers Association said.

Diane Benson Harrington is an education writer for SmartBrief.

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