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Analysis: No Child Left Behind showed how education policy can lead the way to bipartisanship. Biden should follow that model

Senegal Alfred Mabry and Carlos R. McCray | February 3, 2021

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Despite his clear election win, President Joe Biden has faced staunch rejection by many state and federal Republican policymakers. If he cannot find opportunities to build political capital with Republicans quickly, his administration, the planned COVID-19 response and American democracy are in jeopardy. If Biden hopes to rebuild bridges and end the political polarization that threatens to stymie his administration, he must focus on educational policy early in his presidency.

Another president who faced rejection from the opposing party while fighting challenges to his authority as president was George W. Bush. After the Supreme Court’s controversial Bush v. Gore decision, the nation was politically divided. Bush needed to quickly develop bipartisan consensus around a significant piece of legislation to move his administration forward. To bring together the House and the Senate and build a working relationship with the Democratic leadership, he partnered with the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy on his first significant piece of legislation, No Child Left Behind. That success, working across the aisle, gave Bush a strong foundation from which to govern. While Bush did not always see eye to eye with Democratic leaders during his presidency, NCLB built early bonds of trust for bipartisan solutions to the nation’s many challenges, including the tragedy of 9/11.

Reopening the public schools for in-person instruction and measuring the effect of the virus on student learning and building the education system back with better assessments should be key areas of focus for the Biden administration. Education policy could provide its first opportunity for jump-starting the nation’s economy, which would also convince Republican to move on to the business of governing a nation in crisis.

During the COVID-19 shutdown, American families realized how central public education is in their lives. Schools have played an essential role in distributing resources, providing child care and helping students retain a sense of normalcy while the world shifted beneath their feet. Challenges in the education communities’ response to the pandemic left many parents frustrated with online learning and confused about why many schools have not reopened yet, as they fear their children are falling further behind socially and academically.

These educational policy challenges are opportunities for the Biden administration to step up and repair the working relationships between liberals and conservatives. The president’s judicious selection of Miguel Cardona — whose doctoral work focused on mobilizing political will to address achievement disparities — as secretary of education is a clear call to action in this moment of polarization. Republican education leaders have long called for better assessments of student growth; Biden can use this moment to develop equitable assessment standards to get students on a better track.

Biden enters into the presidency during one of the most tumultuous times in American political history. He needs to swiftly build a working political relationship with conservatives, understand the virus’s effect on young people’s learning and reopen schools to jump-start the economy. Education policy is his best option for getting his administration off on the right foot and reestablishing the operating levels of bipartisanship that a healthy democracy needs to survive.

Senegal Alfred Mabry is an Obama Foundation My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Advisory Board member and a senior policy analyst at The Hunt Institute. 

Carlos R. McCray is a professor of educational leadership at Montclair State University. He has published six books on leadership and diversity-related issues in education, including “School Leadership in a Diverse Society: Helping Schools Prepare all Students for Success.”

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