Shortly after Joe Biden was declared president-elect, the cabinet rumor mill got working. Mitt Romney for Health and Human Services? Doug Jones for attorney general? These murmurs appeared to belie President Trump’s warning that a Biden administration would be run by far-left radicals, with one exception: the speculation that Biden would appoint a teachers’ union president as secretary of education.
Ultimately, Biden nominated Connecticut education commissioner Miguel Cardona. Compared with teachers’ union leaders, Cardona appears moderate. But Biden’s Department of Education transition team looks as though it came straight off the field of a National Education Association (NEA) versus American Federation of Teachers (AFT) softball game. It seems all but certain that on education, Biden will govern to the left of Barack Obama.
During the campaign, Biden railed against Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos’s policies on everything from charter schools to Title IX reform. When Biden sat down with former NEA president and rumored Secretary of Education front-runner Lily Eskelsen García, she told him, “You know how we feel about charter schools”—to which Biden replied, “Same way I feel.”
School choice is largely a state issue. But during the Obama administration, the Department of Justice filed suit to stop Louisiana’s voucher program on the empirically dubious rationale that the voluntary option violated federal desegregation orders. It’s reasonable to expect that the Biden administration will seek similar justifications to harass state-level school choice programs.
As for traditional public schools, Biden campaigned on the promise to expand federal education spending dramatically. He won’t get everything he’s asking for, but he might get quite a bit. Congressional Republicans looking for concessions in the budget process would be happy to exchange more spending on K–12 education for other conservative priorities. Most of the education establishment will hail these spending increases as an advance for equity, but how much money is spent will matter less than how it is spent.
Federal funding will come with more strings attached. Biden campaigned on reinstating Obama’s “Dear Colleague Letter” on school discipline. That DCL, framed as “nonbinding guidance,” served as the pretext for civil rights “investigations” that were, in truth, policy-enforcement exercises. School districts under investigation risked losing federal funds unless they committed to adopt restorative-justice discipline policies. The evidence strongly suggests that these policies have hampered learning, destabilized classrooms, and made schools less safe. But school leaders will no longer be able to consider the evidence when it comes to classroom discipline. They will face a choice: implement lenient policies, or risk federal harassment and a potential loss of federal funding.
A reversion to the regulatory status quo ante is all but certain. The biggest question is how much further a Biden administration will go. Under Obama, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights was transformed from an arbitrator of last resort for allegations of discriminatory treatment to a forward operating base for the Left in America’s culture wars. From how elementary schools regulate bathrooms to how college campuses investigate sexual-assault allegations, many of the flash points in our national political debates have been intensified by unelected Department of Education bureaucrats interpreting long-standing civil rights law as a basis to enforce the latest social-justice cause.
Critical race theory, for example, holds that all whites are inherently racist, that all nonwhites are inherently marginalized and oppressed, that the only way to be an “antiracist” is to espouse left-wing ideology, and that state-sponsored racial discrimination in favor of black, indigenous, and persons of color (BIPOC) and against whites is an “antiracist” imperative. Taking note of this, the Trump administration issued an executive order banning taxpayer-funded professional trainings that promote “race or sex stereotyping,” defined as “ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status, or beliefs to a race or sex or to an individual because of his race or sex.” The Biden transition team has promised to rescind it, implicitly endorsing critical race theory. Biden’s administration could decide to go further and issue a DCL to mandate that school districts across America promote critical race theory.
Modest Republican inroads into the nonwhite electorate in the recent election suggest that the American people have not delivered a mandate on racial issues to the Democrats. Most Americans, of any color, reject the premise of inherited guilt based on race, or the demonization of any group by virtue of immutable characteristics. Promotion of critical race theory in schools would produce a backlash and do nothing to promote the healing and national unity that Biden claims to seek.
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