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Joe Biden: I Will Have a 'Teacher-Oriented Department of Education'

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In an address to delegates of the nation's largest teachers' union today, Joe Biden promised that if he is elected president, teachers will have more say in how education decisions are made.  

"You will never find in American history a president who is more teacher-centric or more supportive of teachers than me," Biden told National Education Association delegates on July 3. The presumptive Democratic nominee spoke via webcam during the NEA's annual Representative Assembly, which is virtual this year.  

"This is going to be a teacher-oriented Department of Education, and it's not going to come from the top down—it's going to come from the teachers up," he said. 

The former vice president has previously pledged to nominate a former teacher to the position of U.S. Secretary of Education if elected. Biden told educators that they are the "most important profession" and deserve more respect. 

"Education should be put more in the hands of educators," he said. "You should have more input on what you teach, how you teach it, and when you teach it. You are the ones in the classroom, you should have more input."

And while he acknowledged that much of school funding comes from the state and local level, he said teachers would get a "major say" in where and how the federal portion is spent. 

The NEA, along with the other national teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed Biden over Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary, although some members were dissatisfied with their union's decision. NEA delegates will vote on endorsing Biden in the general election via mail-in ballots. 

"We need a new president," NEA President Lily Eskelsen García told delegates. "And we believe Joe Biden must be that new president. We need a president who will fire Betsy DeVos on her first day in office. We need someone who will replace her with a Secretary of Education who knows what she's talking about. ... We need a president who loves our students and cares about all their lives and all their families and all the neighborhoods they live in." 

During his address, Biden touted his education plan, which calls for tripling Title I funding to pay for teacher salary increases and more student supports, universal prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, and full federal funding within 10 years for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

"Bottom line: When we win this election, you're going to get the support you need," he said, adding that if he doesn't follow through with his education plan, he'll be "sleeping alone in the Lincoln bedroom."

Jill Biden, who taught high school for 13 years and is now a community college professor, is an NEA member. 

Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis

Biden slammed President Donald Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic several times, as well as the Senate's refusal to consider the HEROES Act, which passed the House and would provide $58 billion in aid to local school districts. 

Already, Biden said, hundreds of thousands of educators' jobs have been lost since the start of the pandemic. Right now, that's largely due to the fact that hourly workers are considered unemployed when schools are closed, but thousands of teacher layoffs are expected to occur this year as states cut their education budgets.  

"This is absolutely unacceptable," he said. "We're already short the number of teachers we need nationally."

While there isn't a national across-the-board teacher shortage, shortages do exist locally and in certain subjects, like special education and high school math and science. Also, enrollment at teacher-preparation programs has been steadily declining for the past few years.

Biden also called for schools to receive more funding so they can make accommodations—like purchasing Plexiglass dividers—to safely reopen for in-person instruction. And, he said, every student needs access to broadband internet so they can participate in remote learning.  

"There's probably a high probability we'll have to continue with remote learning in some parts of the country for a while longer," Biden said.

Paula McConnell, an education support professional in Michigan, asked Biden what he would tell educators looking for leadership about how schools can reopen safely.

"We have to have a clear message based on science, based on what the experts tell us, and ... make sure to get the input from people who are in the field, in the classroom, in the buildings dealing with the problem," Biden responded. "Parents, including teachers, are not going to be able to go back to work until they're sure their children—from months old to 3- to 4-years-old—are able to be taken care of safely."

Turquoise Parker, a K-5 media specialist in North Carolina, asked Biden how he will fight racial inequities. Biden said he would fight for police reform and criminal justice reform so fewer people are sent to jail on drug charges. He also reiterated his call for more Title I funding, so that all schools could have access to Advanced Placement courses. 

"As a kid, I used to stutter a lot," Biden said. "I'm not making it comparable to someone who is a young African American who has not been treated well or has been a victim of systemic racism. But I'll tell you one thing: Don't ever talk down to these kids. When [adults] told me, 'That's OK,' and finished my sentence for me, I said, 'I'm smart. I'll finish my sentence.' These kids are capable of doing anything anybody else can do. Let's not dumb it down. They're incredibly capable. ... Children tend to turn out what you expect of them. Let's show them the love and respect, and then the support."

Finally, Jimbo Lamb, a high school math teacher and the president of the southern region of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, asked Biden how he'll unite a divided nation. Biden responded that throughout his career, he's been able to bring Republicans and Democrats together.

"We can disagree, but we don't have to be disagreeable," Biden said. 

In a phone interview after the address, Lamb said he appreciated Biden's answer. While Biden wasn't his first choice in the primary—he supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren—Lamb said he will be voting for him in November.

"He definitely knows what educators need, both in the classroom and in the overall school community," he said. "He's often listened to us and gotten back to us." 

And Biden's pledge to name an educator as Secretary of Education is key, Lamb said. 

"In the past few years [with DeVos in the position], it's been tougher to do what we need to do," he said.

Image: Screenshot of the NEA webcast —Madeline Will/Education Week

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