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The gloves are now off of Biden’s quiet education radicalism

Between the war raging in Ukraine and the inflation raging at home, one might think the Biden administration would have had its hands full during the past month. 

Yet it still found time to assail public charter schools, denounce state tests as an attack on public schools, and give a vast new taxpayer handout to those who have borrowed federal funds to attend college.

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Vice President Kamala Harris shares a laugh with, from left, Thomas Elementary School principal Jaimee Trahan, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, national climate adviser Gina McCarthy and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, during a visit to the Washington school on April 4, 2022.

Vice President Kamala Harris shares a laugh with, from left, Thomas Elementary School principal Jaimee Trahan, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, national climate adviser Gina McCarthy and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, during a visit to the Washington school on April 4, 2022.
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

When candidate Biden unveiled his education agenda (at a teacher union town hall) in 2020, he pledged to triple Title I school spending, enact universal pre-K, and promote race-based college admissions. But, as Peter Beinart enthused in the Atlantic that summer, while Biden’s agenda was “further to the left than that of any Democratic nominee in decades,” the public viewed him as “more centrist than he actually is.”

Biden initially worked to maintain that pretense, naming a stealth appointee, Miguel Cardona, to head the Department of Education. Cardona, a career administrator in a small school district, had no paper trail and was best-known for a year spent running Connecticut’s state education bureaucracy.  

Well, the gloves are now off. Biden’s education agenda has proven to be an unrelenting experiment in big government, big spending, and culture war.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks with Beverly Hills Middle School student Michah Clark-Kahler, 12, April 6, 20201, in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks with Beverly Hills Middle School student Michah Clark-Kahler, 12, April 6, 20201, in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.
(Pete Bannan/MediaNews Group/Daily Times)

In mid-March, the administration issued new rules intended to gut the $440 million federal charter school program, calling for massive new paperwork burdens on public charter schools. New applicants would have to demonstrate that they wouldn’t have an “adverse” impact on district schools—regardless of how awful the district schools might be or parent demand for alternatives. Biden did this, of course, just as families exit a pandemic in which public charter schools again proved their exceptional agility and value.

Cardona doubled down on this defense of traditional district schools just a week later, when he tried to undermine state tests. Rather than emphasize the urgent need to figure out how well students and schools are and are not doing, Cardona opted for conspiracy-mongering—warning of a shadowy cabal supposedly “waiting for that [test] data” in order to “create a picture because their plan is to privatize.” Apparently, bad news on public school performance is now to be treated as suspect.

In early April, Biden announced yet another “pause” on student loan payments, allowing borrowers to skip payments even as their interest does not accrue. While Biden has so far rejected far-left calls to forgive college student debt, repeatedly extending the “emergency” student loan repayment freeze has cost the federal government $4.3 billion a month—and nearly $100 billion since the freezes began.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona gives the thumbs up to virtual students in Danielle Shalon's seventh-grade math class at Beverly Hills Middle School in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday April 6, 2021.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona gives the thumbs up to virtual students in Danielle Shalon’s seventh-grade math class at Beverly Hills Middle School in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday April 6, 2021.
(Pete Bannan/MediaNews Group/Daily Times via Getty Images)

This is perverse given the already-existing bevy of programs intended to help borrowers in need, the low unemployment rates among college grads age 25 and older, and—particularly—the fact the freeze mostly benefits big borrowers who used federal loans to go to law school, medical school, or pricey private colleges.  

This is all of a piece with the Biden administration’s record. In its failed “Build Back Better” plan and in continued efforts since, the Biden team has pushed a universal pre-K proposal that would squeeze out faith-based and mom-and-pop providers, impose new federal standards and credential requirements, drive up costs, penalize stay-at-home parents, and give Washington a massive new say over early childhood settings.

Last fall, Cardona and Attorney General Merrick Garland teamed up to intimidate parents angry about school masking policies or critical race theory. The Biden administration solicited a letter from the National School Boards Association that suggested “acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials” are equivalent to “domestic terrorism,” leading Garland to direct the FBI to monitor and investigate complaints.

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Department of Justice on Jan. 5, 2022, in Washington.

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Department of Justice on Jan. 5, 2022, in Washington.
(Carolyn Kaster-Pool/Getty Images)

Last year, long after it became clear that school closures were unnecessary and harmful, Biden and Cardona stood mute as deep-blue bastions like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles kept the school doors locked. This spring, they said not a word as teacher strikes in cities like Minneapolis and Sacramento shut schools back down. But there was time for Biden to blast state efforts to make school masking optional as “Neanderthal thinking” and to threaten to sue to stop those states from doing so.   

There was the back-door channel to the CDC the Biden team gave the teacher unions, letting them secretly help script guidance for school closures and masking. There was the Department of Education’s move to feature the New York Times’s 1619 Project and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to be an Anti-Racist” in the federal civics grants program. 

And there’s the current push to redefine Title IX in line with woke ideology, so that any educational institution making distinctions based on biology (as with dormitories, locker rooms, or sports teams) would run afoul of civil rights law.

Biden quietly promised the nation an expensive, far-reaching and ideological education agenda. That’s one promise he’s kept.

Frederick Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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