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Harris: The Biden administration must commit in the first 100 days to building education policies with community, not for it

Khalilah Harris | December 21, 2020

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There are hopeful signs the Biden administration will be making a deep commitment to policies and practices that will advance educational equity and ensure every child has access to a quality school. Recently, future First Lady Jill Biden took to social media to make an explicit statement about the new administration’s commitment to quality schools for every child. But when it comes to education equity, words are great — action is better.

During the outgoing administration, there had been a steady drumbeat to undermine provisions, guidance, regulations and internal structures that ensure students’ civil rights. But there are immediate steps the new administration can take within its first 100 days to right the ship and build a U.S. Department of Education that protects students, strengthens the community of educators and connects with directly impacted stakeholders across the country.

The Biden-Harris administration must take a step beyond campaign statements about advancing racial equity to articulate and incorporate policies that address gaps in educational opportunity. The $23 billion gap in annual investments between schools that are predominantly white and schools predominantly serving Black, Indigenous, Latino and other children of color must be an area for concerted action. Further, the lack of educators who reflect the backgrounds of the majority population in public schools and racial disparities in school discipline call for targeted policies to bridge those gaps.

In the first 100 days of the administration, the White House Initiatives on Educational Excellence should be immediately reestablished, fully staffed and connected directly to the Domestic Policy Council for coordination. The initiatives were established to engage in outreach with Black, Indigenous, Latino and other people of color to strengthen educational and economic outcomes. They work strategically with commissions to advise the president on policy and actions that will make federal programs more accessible to these communities. These offices can serve as a core strategic center for developing policies with community members across the country at the local and state levels, while offering a national view of how to make school quality equitable across all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

For too long, education policymaking has been done to community instead of with community. Community members directly impacted by federal policy know what they need most to contribute to and recognize improved academic and economic success. Continuing to keep community on the outside while D.C. insiders make decisions for them would be tragic, especially in the face of disparities in access to continuation of learning in communities of color during the COVID-19 pandemic. Adopting strategies for participatory government can help to design schools, systems of education and meaningful accountability practices that are embraced and supported by the broader community. Listening to the voices of the people who serve our children every day can only point policymakers in a direction they could not imagine on their own.

The Biden camp made clear its support for community schools while on the campaign trail, but the administration can go farther by directing the new secretary of education to issue regulations that advantage grantees who propose a community-informed approach to their work. This would both make clear to local and state entities that priority is being placed on community control of their schools and build capacity for working with community at the front end of the policymaking process.

A President Joe Biden should make clear these commitments to quality education during his first address to the nation. This should be followed by directives to reinstate protections for transgender students in Title IX, ensuring the Office for Civil Rights is fully staffed and directed to resume investigations of complaints; reinstate and strengthen guidance for closing disparities in school discipline, encouraging restorative solutions for building school climate; and build and support a world-class cohort of educators who are paid as professionals, having working conditions that make high-quality teaching possible and reflect the racial and linguistic makeup of the student population.

America has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revamp its public schools so they provide a quality education for every child. Beyond its rhetoric about supporting students, their families and the educators who teach them every day, the Biden administration can begin leading this country by planting a flag in the ground that says equity in education is a must-have, and not simply a nice-to-have. Our country cannot afford to take an incremental approach to improving schools and disrupting the racism that has undermined equitable access to a great education. Involving community members is the only way to build what we need instead of rebuilding what we had.

Khalilah Harris, Ed.D., J.D., is the managing director of K12 education policy at the Center for American Progress and a nonresident senior fellow with the Maryland Center on Economic Policy.

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