For some Americans, the federal government investing a single dime in education is considered an overreach of power and an insult to the Constitution, which lays out that the responsibility for all functions not assigned to the federal government, like education, remains with the states. However, over the last few decades, there has been a bipartisan consensus that education has such broad consequences for the nation as a whole that the federal government needs to do what it can to improve educational outcomes and, especially, equity of educational opportunity. President Biden’s ambitious and expensive educational investment plan may succeed in these goals where previous plans have not.
Major federal programs, like George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act, have invested substantially in state education systems only to see ever-increasing school segregation and little to no impact on school funding inequity. President Biden’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan may be ambitious enough to make an impact at a time when growing teacher shortages look set to plunge public education into crisis.
The bill would expand universal prekindergarten access, make it easier for high-poverty schools to serve free meals, and fund programs to train and support teachers. The proposed $9 billion investment in K–12 teachers includes $2 billion “to support programs that leverage teachers as leaders, such as high-quality mentorship programs for new teachers and teachers of color”; $1.6 billion “to provide educators with opportunities to obtain additional certifications in high-demand areas like special education, bilingual education, and certifications that improve teacher performance. This funding will support over 100,000 educators, with priority for public school teachers with at least two years of experience at schools with a significant portion of low-income students or significant teacher shortages”; “double scholarships for future teachers from $4,000 to $8,000 per year while earning their degree, strengthening the program, and expanding it to early childhood educators”; $2.8 billion for “Grow Your Own” programs and year-long, paid teacher residency programs, which have a greater impact on student outcomes and teacher retention and are more likely to enroll teacher candidates of color; $900 million for special education teachers; and $400 million for teacher preparation at historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions.
The package was the focus of Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress, in which he said, “We can’t be so busy competing with each other that we forget the competition is with the rest of the world to win the 21st century. To win that competition for the future, we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families—in our children.”
The president wisely focused on investment in children—rather than teachers, which may be unpalatable to some policymakers—but the plan will still be a challenge to pass in a partisan Senate. In the Republican response to the address, Senator Tim Scott (R–South Carolina) called it “even more taxing, even more spending, to put Washington even more in the middle of your life—from the cradle to college.”
“The beauty of the American Dream is that families get to define it for themselves,” he added, but he neglected to mention that without an adequate supply of qualified teachers who represent the communities they serve, families will struggle to access the education their children will require to achieve even a basic standard of living, let alone the American Dream.
To work, federal education plans need buy-in from states and recognition that they represent a sound investment for the economic future of the country. Investment in teachers is investment in children.