Education reformers breathed a sigh of relief when it became clear that President-elect Joe Biden wouldn’t tap a teachers-union leader as his secretary of education, contrary to the post-election rumor mill. Instead, Biden nominated Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona.
Compared to teachers-union leaders, Cardona appears moderate. But Biden’s Department of Education transition team looks as though it came straight off the field of a National Education Association versus American Federation of Teachers softball game. It seems all but certain that on education, Biden will govern to the left of his ex-boss, President Barack Obama.
During the campaign, Biden railed against President Trump’s policies on everything from charter schools to Title IX reform. When Biden sat down with former NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, she told him, “You know how we feel about charter schools.” Biden replied, “Same way I feel.”
School choice is a state issue. But the Obama Department of Justice filed suit against Louisiana’s voucher program on the empirically dubious grounds that it violated federal desegregation orders. It’s reasonable to expect Team Biden will seek similar justifications to harass state-level school-choice programs.
As for traditional public schools, Biden campaigned on the promise to expand federal spending dramatically. Congressional Republicans looking for concessions in budget negotiations would likely be happy to exchange more education spending for other conservative priorities. The education establishment will applaud these spending increases, but how much money is spent will matter less than how it is spent.
Federal funding will come with more strings attached. Biden campaigned on reinstating Obama’s “Dear Colleague Letter” on school discipline. That DCL, framed as “nonbinding guidance,” served as the pretext for civil-rights “investigations” that were, in truth, policy-enforcement exercises.
School districts under investigation risked losing federal funds unless they committed to adopt restorative-justice discipline policies. These policies have hampered learning, destabilized classrooms and made schools less safe. But school leaders will no longer be able to consider the evidence when it comes to classroom discipline. They will face a choice: implement lenient policies, or risk federal harassment and a potential loss of federal funding.
A reversion to the Obama state of affairs is all but certain. The biggest question is how much further a Biden administration will go. Under Obama, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights was transformed from an arbitrator of last resort for allegations of discriminatory treatment to a forward operating base for the left in America’s culture wars.
From how elementary schools regulate bathrooms to how college campuses investigate sexual-assault allegations, many of the flash points in our national debates have been intensified by unelected Department of Education bureaucrats interpreting long-standing civil-rights law as a basis to enforce the latest social-justice cause.
The latest frontier in America’s culture war is critical race theory, which holds that all whites are inherently racist, that all nonwhites are inherently oppressed, that to be “anti-racist” requires espousing left-wing ideology and that state-sponsored discrimination in favor of black, indigenous and persons of color and against whites is an “antiracist” imperative.
To fight this, the Trump administration issued an executive order banning taxpayer-funded professional trainings that promote “race or sex stereotyping,” defined as “ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status, or beliefs to a race or sex or to an individual because of his race or sex.” Biden’s transition team has promised to rescind it, implicitly endorsing critical race theory. His administration could decide to go further and issue a DCL to mandate that school districts across America promote critical race theory.
Most Americans, of any color, reject the premise of inherited guilt based on race, or the demonization of any group by virtue of immutable characteristics. Federal promotion of critical race theory in schools would lead to a massive populist backlash that would make earlier curricular fights look like peanuts, and do nothing to promote the healing and national unity that Biden claims to seek.
Max Eden is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow. Adapted from City Journal.