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Teachers cheer the end of the DeVos era — but what comes next under President-elect Biden?

The president-elect has promised more funding for public schools and stronger leadership on reopening amid COVID-19.

Many educators are cheering the election of Joe Biden. "You're going to have one of your own in the White House," Biden told teachers; Jill Biden is a community college professor.
Many educators are cheering the election of Joe Biden. "You're going to have one of your own in the White House," Biden told teachers; Jill Biden is a community college professor.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Fatimah Hayes is overjoyed that Joe Biden won the presidency.

It means, as Biden noted in his victory speech, that after four years of feeling demoralized, educators will have “one of their own in the White House” — incoming first lady Jill Biden is a community college English teacher.

“I’m ecstatic for the possibilities and the hope to have someone who is qualified to be in charge," said Hayes, a social studies teacher at Pennsauken High School.

After having a president who slammed “failing government schools” and promoted private schools as alternatives, public education advocates are hopeful a Biden administration will bring renewed focus to traditional public schools, which educate the vast majority of the nation’s students. The president-elect has promised more funding for public schools and stronger leadership on reopening amid COVID-19.

Stef Feldman, Biden’s policy director, told education reporters last month that the administration’s priorities would include “setting national safety guidelines that are guided by science and empowering local decision-making regarding safe reopening of schools.”

Marie Blistan, a Washington Township special-education teacher and president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers' union with more than 200,000 members, said the election of Biden “is going to be a world of difference.”

Biden has taken heat in some quarters for his ties to teachers' unions; Jill Biden is a member of the NEA, and unions worked aggressively to help elect her husband.

To many teachers, the Trump era was bad news, heralded by Betsy DeVos, an education chief who never worked as an educator, a billionaire who believes in expanding school-voucher programs that divert dollars from public schools. DeVos proposed slashing spending on public schools and wanted the federal government less involved in enforcing civil rights issues in classrooms.

Teachers' social media erupted when Biden won: “Bye Betsy!” one meme gleefully proclaimed.

It’s unclear whom Biden will tap to be his education secretary, though advisers have promised it will be someone with public school experience. The names of teachers' union chiefs and urban superintendents including Philadelphia’s William R. Hite Jr. have been circulated as contenders, but Hite said he has neither been contacted by the Biden team nor given much thought to the position.

“I’d naturally want to give consideration to a request by the president-elect, but I don’t want to deal in hypotheticals,” he said.

The new education secretary must “rethink decision-making through the lens of equality,” said Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs. “It should be someone who has not lost touch with what on-the-ground experience is like for students today."

Though the federal Education Department does not set school budgets or have much say over the day-to-day of how districts run, its broad policies affect conditions inside districts. And when COVID-19 hit, Washington actually hampered districts' responses, Hite said.

“The guidance has been all over the place, depending on who you’re talking to — one thing out of the White House, something different from the CDC, and it was constantly changing,” said Hite. “I feel like there will be a renewed energy to ensure that districts … have the necessary resources and guidance in order to not just navigate through the pandemic but come out on the other side with the structures and supports to get children back on track."

Some policy areas that may quickly change in the Biden administration include the Department of Education’s approach to civil rights investigations into discrimination complaints in schools. Under DeVos, the agency shifted away from investigations into systemic bias.

The new education secretary will have to win Senate confirmation, however. And much of what Biden has said he hopes to achieve will hinge on whether Congress will support his agenda.

Biden called during his campaign for tripling funding for Title 1, a federal program that steers money to schools with high shares of students from low-income families. He proposed using the money to bolster the teaching workforce by increasing salaries. He also said he would invest in teacher mentoring and added mental health professionals in schools, and would devote funding to improving aging school facilities as part of a broader infrastructure package.

If Republicans maintain control of the Senate, they may seek to impose conditions — including school-choice measures they favor — on any funding increase, said Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies education law and policy.

With Republicans pushing to direct more public money to families to send children to private schools or other programs, “there’s room for big … gridlock around these issues,” Black said.

A similar dynamic exists in Harrisburg, where Republicans who control the state House have backed the expansion of programs that use tax dollars to support children attending private schools.

Given the GOP’s continued dominance in the legislature, “I’m very bullish” on school-choice initiatives, said Jennifer Stefano, vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based conservative think tank.

She doesn’t expect support for any voucher programs on the federal level, though: “Sadly, I fear President-elect Biden will take his cues from the teachers' unions.”

Biden’s administration might not make dramatic changes involving charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. A Biden aide told education reporters last month the president-elect would seek to end federal funding for charter schools that “don’t provide results,” though it wasn’t clear how the administration would define that.

Farah Jimenez, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Education Fund and a former member of the now-disbanded School Reform Commission, didn’t predict much difference for Philadelphia charters, which educate about one-third of city public school students.

“In the end, public education is highly local,” Jimenez said.

Still, Philadelphia teacher Benjamin Hover said Biden’s election feels like a turning point. Hover — who shared the stage with Jill Biden in October, introducing her at a campaign event at her alma mater, Upper Moreland High — believes the hallmark of the DeVos era was “punishing poor schools and students for factors that are outside of their control."

“I think that we as a country have made a choice about an investment in public education and care for all of our children, no matter what zip code they live in and what school district they live in,” said Hover, who teaches English at Central High. “I think it’s a fundamental shift.”