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President Joe Biden walks along the Colonnade Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, to the Oval Office of the White House.
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz
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The Bottom Line $130 Billion & First 100 Days

President Biden promised to reopen K-12 public schools within his first 100 days in office. His current proposal entails $130 billion of funding toward this end. Will the teacher unions determine this massive funding sufficient and get their teachers back on campus and in classrooms?

For Biden It’s About Money

During the October 2020 Presidential debate, instead of emphasizing the sheer urgency of opening schools, Biden had a different focus: “schools need a lot of money to open.” At that time, his plan called for $30 billion for reopening, $4 billion for technology, and $58 billion through the HEROES Act. By day one in office, Biden demanded Congress grant a minimum of $130 billion to schools and an additional $350 billion for state and local relief to mitigate school district budget gaps and further fund reopening expenses. Beyond K-12, Biden advocated for $35 billion for colleges.

But according to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, the $130 billion currently proposed in the American Rescue Plan is not the end of the extra K-12 funding to come, which is estimated at $199 billion. Here is a breakdown of projections:

  • $60 Billion — Avoiding Layoffs
  • $3.5 Billion — Materials and Consumables (physical barriers)
  • $14 Billion — Additional Custodial Staff Members
  • $14 Billion — Transportation (more buses to provide social distancing on buses)
  • $6 Billion — Personal Protective Equipment (PPE for staff and masks for students eligible for free or reduced lunch)
  • $50 Billion — Social Distancing/Reduced Class Size (increase instructional staff by 10%)
  • $3 Billion — Health Staff (fund nurses at schools without a nurse currently)
  • $29 Billion — Extend Learning Time & Support for Students (tutors and summer school for low-income students)
  • $10 Billion — Counselors and School Psychologists
  • $7 Billion — Digital Divide (Wi-Fi hotspots, devices)
  • $0.1 Billion — Community Schools (offering wrap-around services and supports)
  • $2 Billion — COVID-19 Educational Equity Gap Challenge Grant

For Biden, it appears the solution is shelling out taxpayer money in the billions.

Teacher Union Control

It’s obvious who Biden is trying to placate. Teacher unions maintain their dominance through political action, providing substantial funding to candidates in exchange for support and advancement of their agenda. Just prior to the November election, the National Education Association had raised $23 million, with 99% allocated to Democratic candidates.

The other national powerhouse teacher union, the American Federation of Teachers, pumped nearly $10.7 million into the 2020 election, with 98.6% donated toward Democrats. It’s no wonder that Democratic party elected officials cater to teacher union agendas.

The union ties are especially strong for Biden. The first lady, Dr. Jill Biden, did not delay in expressing her appreciation to the mega teacher unions. She invited and hosted National Education Association President Becky Pringle and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to the White House the day after her husband’s inauguration. She assured Pringle and Weingarten, “Joe is going to be a champion for you because he knows that’s the best way to serve our students.”

But is championing teacher union leaders the best way to serve students? Do dominating teacher unions act in the best interest of students? Believing this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the unions’ purpose, which is to advance their members’ interests — what is best for teachers.

Unfortunately, as historical teacher strikes have revealed, and the unprecedented past eleven months of closed schools show, union leaders don’t champion what’s best for students nor their families. Rather through their powerful political leverage, they seek better pay and working conditions for teachers. And when their demands aren’t met, they employ strong-arm tactics — sending their members to the picket line or refusing to report to work (despite continuing to receive their full contract pay). Of course, their true motives are concealed — in this case, the unions promote a narrative of harmful teacher working conditions, including outright danger, in the COVID-19 era despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Reopening within First 100 Days

Biden boldly boasted he would reopen K-12 schools within his first hundred days in office, which translates to an April 30 deadline. However, even before reaching the one-month mark in office, he’s backpedaling instead of making good on the promise. First, Biden removed high schools from the reopening equation. Second, Team Biden drastically lowered the bar, now explaining the promise to reopen schools equates to as little as just over 50 percent, instead of reopening nearly all of the K-12 public schools. To top it off, the definition of reopening is presently explained as students attending on-campus as little as one day per week.

Biden and his team’s defensive response to redefining the reopening of schools mirrors the union narrative: “Americans’ lives are at stake…The goal at the end of the day is doing what’s best for public health.”

The CDC has published data revealing there is “little evidence” of widespread COVID-19 transmission in schools. Additionally, the report states, “There is evidence to suggest that K-12 in-person school attendance is not a primary driver of community transmission.” Furthermore, Rochelle Walensky, Director of the CDC, said and has reiterated, “I’m a strong advocate of teachers receiving their vaccinations, but we don’t believe it’s a prerequisite for reopening schools.” The Administration’s commitment to “following the science” evidently only applies when it aligns with their political agenda.

Elements of Safe K-12 Schooling

The long-awaited report by the CDC provides essential elements of safe K-12 school operations for in-person learning. They include mitigation strategies to reduce transmission, such as mask-wearing, physical distancing, handwashing, facility cleaning, and contact tracing. Ask any school administrator, parent, or student at an open school, where measures were put in place last summer and have marked the “new” school experience the past six months, and you’ll hear these same proactive practices. The youngest of students can easily attest to their school day consisting of masks, distancing, handwashing, cleaning, and temperature checks.

The notion that schools can reopen safely is not just theory. Private schools, which opened fully back in August and September with in-person learning, and have remained open since, have provided widespread and large-scale proof that schools can safely operate in-person learning. So why the Biden backslide if the science supports schools’ capability to reopen safely?

Where the Power Lies

Whatever Biden’s agenda regarding school reopening, the reality is control of K-12 public education is maintained at the state and local level rather than by the federal government. Though governors and mayors hold the power reins to a stronger degree, the strongest of control is the teacher unions — and unions don’t want schools open with or without their teachers vaccinated.

Research from over 10,000 school districts substantiates this truth: “districts with stronger unions, as measured by district size and whether there’s collective bargaining, were less likely to hold in-person classes.” Evidently, the local school union’s strength is a stronger factor than infection rates within the community when it comes to school reopening decisions.

Spending the Government Aid Money

Regardless of the funding motive and reopening status, K-12 public schools will continue to receive extensive government aid money. Public school districts received roughly two-to-three percent of their annual budget in March 2020, with the CARES Act providing $13 billion. Additionally, they were granted more than four times that amount, $54 billion, in December 2020, through the Consolidated Appropriations Act. These measures have equated to significant money from the federal government to provide for safe school reopening. However, although these funds made it more than possible, receiving the funds did not require schools to reopen.

With Biden’s $130 billion plan, even more, money would be on the way — ten times that of the March CARES Act. The additional $130 billion averages roughly $2,600 of additional funding per student to public schools. However, the amount of money a district receives will be based on Title I, therefore, districts with low-income students will receive more than $2,600 per student. Despite further bailout funding, schools won’t be forced to resume five-day-a-week in-person learning nor required to reopen campuses for at least hybrid learning (a combination of remote and in-person learning).

Right or wrong, the essential question will be: How should all this money be spent? The common quick response is personal protective equipment and smaller class sizes. But caution should be given to hiring more staff, and thus incurring a long-term expense with this short-term money. Marguerite Roza, Director of Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, advises “districts to line up a bunch of cost-equivalent alternatives…and then consider which one of these make[s] the most sense” for their situation.

Roza continues with hypothetical examples to get leaders thinking: “We could spend the money to reduce class size by two students for two years. We could spend that money to add one month of school….We could do high-dosage tutoring for a third of the kids. Or we could even just pass the money down to the schools…and say ‘What do you think your students need?’” For Roza, allocating funding at the school level, rather than the district level, is more nimble, adaptive, and innovative than a one-size-fits-all strategy.

Concluding Thoughts

Let’s hope the massive funding is sufficient to overcome teacher union reluctance, and schools will reopen long before Biden’s first 100 days are over. If it takes until a day shy of May, it starts to bump up against the school year’s conclusion in many parts of the country, which are set to wrap up before Memorial Day. Even in areas the conclude the school year in mid-June, strong arguments will be given that it will be too difficult for parents and students to transition back to on-campus schools for only a few weeks.

We can anticipate that unions and even district leaders will argue that it’s too expensive and too risky to rollout. There is strong reason to suspect that even fall 2021 won’t see full in-person schooling return nationwide. Whatever money and science are put forward, it probably won’t be enough for the teacher unions, and the President will likely continue to kowtow to their demands. For the sake of our nation’s students and their families, a dramatically different course is urgently needed.