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Pandemic school lessons for the new educator-in-chief | COMMENTARY

Dr. Miguel Cardona, US President-Elect Joe Biden's nominee for Education Secretary, speaks during an event announcing his nomination at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware, on December 23, 2020.
Dr. Miguel Cardona, US President-Elect Joe Biden's nominee for Education Secretary, speaks during an event announcing his nomination at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware, on December 23, 2020. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s no vaccine for what ails K-12 education, but lessons learned from COVID-19 can shape bipartisan school reform under President Joe Biden.

We’ve learned the hard way that combating the COVID-19 medical emergency requires a national plan. It hasn’t made sense for each state and locality to try on its own to develop and distribute a vaccine, employ safety guidelines and pay the steep costs of relief measures.

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The same logic applies to our COVID-19 education emergency as well. State and local school systems, acting separately, have flunked the test of responding to the crisis. Despite the extraordinary burdens, there could have been less hardship for teachers and parents and less learning loss for students if there had been more national leadership and support.

Suppose, for example, the president’s medical and education advisers had teamed up to develop science-driven metrics and procedures for how and when to open schools. And suppose the president and Congress had enacted aid packages, far more than in the CARES Act and even in the new stimulus bill, to retrofit classrooms and add digital capacity, more teachers and crisis services.

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As one expert put it, “local control of education is a centuries old American tradition, but one that may not be well suited to emergency planning during a pandemic.”

In fact, for decades before COVID-19, our nation has had an educational pandemic on its hands — a catastrophic breakdown in educational opportunity, particularly for students who are poor and of color. Countless school reform movements have faltered, but trial and error has at least taught us that 50 states and about 14,000 local school districts, by themselves, can’t cure unequal educational opportunity.

Is there hope ahead? Can the new educator-in-chief Biden and his education secretary designate Miguel Cardona gain bipartisan backing for a game-changing federal role? There are reasons for optimism.

For one, President Biden’s first approach to public education — how to reopen schools safely — can be a model for post-pandemic school reform. He has committed to scientifically-driven guidelines and sufficient federal funding to enable state and local officials to move rapidly toward more in-person classroom teaching. Conflicts among elected officials, parents and teachers (unfortunately evident in Maryland) would abate.

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Another reason for hope is that prior to the Trump-DeVos education administration, the nation experienced a quarter-century of unprecedented bipartisan action to strengthen the federal role in K-12 policy. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton got it rolling. And it culminated when President George W. Bush, in defiance of Republican orthodoxy and with strong support from Democrats, pushed through the No Child Left Behind Act.

NCLB aimed high: a grand bargain that linked more federal funding, favored by liberals, with strict accountability measures, championed by conservatives. True, it crashed. But it never had a fair chance to succeed — being doomed by unrealistic expectations and state and local educators who resisted tougher oversight.

The Obama-Biden administration gamely tried to keep the bipartisan movement alive. Using 2008 stimulus funding, the Race to the Top initiative challenged teacher unions and required states, in return for federal dollars, to stiffen teacher evaluations and loosen restrictions on charter schools. Still, opposition by educators limited its impact.

Now, which way will Joe go? His campaign and transition education advisers, with heavy union representation, strongly leaned toward rigidly liberal positions: more money and less accountability and charter schools. But his appointment of Mr. Cardona, acclaimed as being a non-ideological problem-solver, seems to set the administration on a bipartisan course of carrot and sticks.

Here’s the deal. There would be large amounts of federal aid — but it would be substantially earmarked for programs congenial to Republicans, like post-pandemic learning loss, early childhood, special education, career and technology programs, rural broadband and charter schools.

The breakthrough would be a balanced education federalism in which the feds assure adequate funding and high accountability standards. Yet, state and local educators can still call the shots on how the funding is spent and the standards are met.

The key to making this balance work, as with combating COVID-19, is good science. In the case of public schools, it’s evidence-based best practices for effective teaching and learning. Alas, education research and development (R&D) is notoriously underfunded and underachieving. A crash program of federally funded R&D would have solid bipartisan backing.

Such an education federalism, like the COVID-19 vaccine, would be a wonder drug for our nation’s parents, teachers and schoolchildren.

Kalman R. Hettleman (khettleman@gmail.com) a former member of the Kirwan Commission and the Baltimore City school board, is an education policy analyst and advocate.

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