Joe Biden stopped talking entirely in generalities and plowed into the policy debate of the 2020 Democratic primary on Tuesday with an ambitious plan to triple the amount of federal spending on low-income schools.
The proposal to infuse some $30 billion of additional Title I spending into struggling K-12 schools is sure to please teachers unions, which play a crucial role in the Democratic primary, while also highlighting the tried-and-true path Biden is taking in his bid for the nomination. His first major policy unveiling is not focused on winning a new constituency or distinguishing himself as an outside-the-box reformer but on reestablishing his bona fides as a steady hand who will shore up — not blow up — the existing system.
“As my wife Jill says, an educator’s profession isn’t just what they do, it is who they are,” Biden said in a statement released by his campaign. “It’s past time we treat and compensate our educators as the professionals they are, and that we make a commitment that no child’s future will be determined by ZIP Code, parents’ income, race or disability.”
So far, Biden, the Democrats’ front-runner, has largely stuck to broad, general themes, promising to unify the country. Until now, he had not offered a specific, new policy idea.
The five-decade-old Title I education program has long been popular across party lines. It currently funnels about $16 billion from the federal government to economically struggling areas, which then allocate the dollars with a high level of discretion. The program has been criticized by some experts as lacking accountability and efficiency, but the biggest complaint educators seem to have with it is that it is deeply underfunded.
Other candidates in the race have also proposed to spend more to boost teacher pay. California Sen. Kamala Harris, for example, unveiled a proposal in March to do so.
Unlike some of his rivals who have proposed innovative new approaches and funding mechanisms, Biden’s pitch on education works within the confines of the current system. The program may have some flaws, but given its popularity with both parties, experts said, Title I could prove the most politically realistic path to vastly increasing federal spending on schools.
“If you wanted to spend a lot of money without hitting a lot of headwinds, this is the way to go,” said Mark Dynarski, an education consultant to governments and nonprofits who has studied Title I. “Is it necessarily the one that would improve outcomes the most? That is a tougher question.”
But Dynarski expects the proposal will be well received by educators and parents. “I can’t think of a plan in the last 30 years in education that would have quite this magnitude,” he said.
Biden unveiled the plan as he prepared to face an audience of unionized educators at a town hall event hosted by the American Federation of Teachers in Houston on Tuesday afternoon.
How much of the spending in Biden’s plan would go toward increased teacher pay is unclear. A memo from the former vice president’s campaign says the funding boost is intended to go in large part to teacher raises, it also lays out other ambitious program expansions toward which the money would be targeted. Those include plans for universal public preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and expanding course offerings in economically disadvantaged schools.
By contrast, the plan for boosting teacher pay proposed by Harris promises to spend nearly as much on teacher salaries alone, boosting average teacher pay $13,500 per year.