Director of State Government Relations
President Biden’s first State of the Union address makes many links to issues facing American families, and their children, including early childhood education, student mental health and support for higher education. Meanwhile, communities across the country work to keep schools open and safe despite tensions on the best ways to educate the next generation. Finally, we celebrate the historic nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson for the Supreme Court.
President Biden delivered his first State of the Union address, as the world looks toward the attacks on Ukraine and the nation works to keep schools open and to support students and educators alike. What did the President propose to meet the needs of American families, their children, and their education? Plus, a historic nomination for the Supreme Court.
State of the Union
This week, President Biden delivered his first State of the Union address, focusing on the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, and his administration’s plans for the economy and achievements so far. That includes historic investments in the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill we’ve discussed in the past. The president touted how these infrastructure investments would help close the digital divide.
President Biden also emphasized the need to keep pace with China and his support for bipartisan legislation—known as the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act in the Senate and the America Competes Act in the House. In our last Federal Flash, we highlighted the bill’s critical investments in STEM pathways as one of the strategies to increase America’s competitiveness.
While education wasn’t a centerpiece of the speech, President Biden gave several nods to much-needed programs and investments in our nation’s schools. He proposed a $1 billion increase in funding for preschool and K-12 schools to hire counselors and other mental health professionals to address students’ mental health. He also discussed the high cost of childcare, reiterating his proposals to ensure families would not pay more than 7% of their income for childcare and for universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.
President Biden also called for investments in higher education and what he said First Lady Jill Biden calls “America’s best-kept secret: community colleges.” Though the speech didn’t get into specifics, he mentioned increasing Pell Grants – which we hope would support proven programs like dual enrollment – and support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
In response to the President’s speech, our President and CEO, Deb Delisle said, “We encourage Congress to take up the President’s education proposals so that all students, particularly those who have been historically underserved, can get what they need to thrive. America’s future depends upon the quality of experiences we provide to America’s youth today.”
Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa delivered the Republican party’s official response. She criticized the Department of Justice’s response to some parents’ threats to schools and educators and the enforcement of school mask requirements. This echoes what has become a main talking point for the party – their so-called “Parents’ Bill of Rights.” Governors and lawmakers across the country have been unveiling versions of these bills that would give parents say over policies from masking to curricula and books in libraries. Most recently, the Georgia Senate voted to pass their version of the legislation, and Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) introduced a federal bill late last year. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) unveiled a plan that, among other things, would jeopardize the disaggregation of critical education data.
Many of the bills outline parents’ rights that already exist, but they also work to deepen divides and censor students and educators. Parent advocates, like Red Wine and Blue moms, have started initiatives like the “Book Ban Busters” to track and organize against book challenges and bans across the country.
Keeping Schools Open
Although opposition to school mask requirements is one common theme in these Parents’ Bill of Rights actions, the Centers for Disease Control recently updated its guidance to say that schools in most parts of the country no longer need to require masks. Further, many districts and states – even those led by Democratic governors like New York and California – have started to lift school mask requirements.
After the State of the Union, the Biden administration released its strategy – the National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan – to move the country “past” the pandemic. The plan has four goals: (1) protecting and treating the disease; (2) preparing for new variants; (3) guarding against economic and educational shutdowns; and (4) leading the global vaccination effort. The plan would require additional funding from Congress and promotes initiatives like the “Test to Treat” program, which would immediately prescribe antiviral treatments on-site to a person testing positive.
One of the plan’s commitments – and an emphasis in the State of the Union – was to keep schools open. Hopefully, continued mitigation strategies, alongside new supports and treatments, can keep students and educators in their physical classrooms as well as safe and healthy.
Aside from health and safety challenges, some states and districts are facing a very real teacher shortage. Even before the pandemic, there were many challenges to getting high-quality, highly-qualified teachers into classrooms – especially in high-need areas and subjects. The pandemic compounded these challenges, with states scrambling to keep schools fully staffed. For example, in Kansas, 18-year-olds with high school diplomas can become substitute teachers under a temporary emergency measure, and the Massachusetts board of education has extended their pandemic-era emergency teaching licenses.
On one hand, these efforts will make it easier to fill roles in the short-term. However, as many new hires lack experience or full credentials, some novice teachers will be ill-equipped to manage the diverse needs of their students.
We support President Biden’s State of the Union call on the American people to support schools as volunteers and tutors. Still, we also need long-term solutions, including federal investments in high-retention pathways, reducing educator debt, strengthening teacher and leader preparation, and more.
Historic Supreme Court Nomination
Finally, President Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to replace retiring Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer. As President Biden promised during the campaign, she is the first-ever Black woman selected for the High Court. The daughter of a high school principal, Judge Brown Jackson received her bachelor’s and law degrees from Harvard University, where she was editor of the Harvard Law Review. Her notable career includes a clerkship with Justice Breyer and time in both private practice and as a federal public defender. After being nominated by former President Barack Obama, she was confirmed by the Senate to serve as vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2010 and as a judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2013. Last year, President Biden tapped her to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a long-time steppingstone to the High Court. She is incredibly qualified to serve on the Supreme Court and take on this historic role. We’ll keep you posted as the Senate considers her nomination, with her confirmation hearing scheduled for the week of March 21. Given high-profile cases on the docket next year, Judge Brown Jackson’s views on issues like affirmative action could be hot topics during the hearing.
That’s all for today. For an alert when the next Federal Flash is available, sign up on our website at all4ed.org/FlashSignup. Thanks for watching!
This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the February 4, 2022 episode of Federal Flash, All4Ed’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, D.C. The podcast and video versions are embedded above. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, visit all4ed.org/FlashSignup.
Jenn Ellis is director of state government relations and Anne Hyslop is director of policy development.