FETC preview: How will Biden steer education policy in 2021?

"It's going to be a little bit of a crazy ride for the next couple of years," FETC keynote speaker says
By: | December 17, 2020
Joe Biden's secretary of education will have to guide schools as they reopen classrooms in 2021 and policymakers debate whether teachers should move to the front of the COVID vaccination line. (GettyImages/Vesnaandjic)Joe Biden's secretary of education will have to guide schools as they reopen classrooms in 2021 and policymakers debate whether teachers should move to the front of the COVID vaccination line. (GettyImages/Vesnaandjic)
Julia Martin, FETC keynote speaker

Julia Martin, FETC keynote speaker

A critical issue facing leaders of the next Department of Education will be how to use assessments to measure progress after the disruptions of COVID and online learning.

Any data may be skewed by trying to compare students’ performance on assessments given online this school year with their scores on tests given after they return to classrooms in-person, says Julia Martin, a Future of Education Technology Conference® 2021 keynote speaker and legislative director for the education-focused law firm, Brustein & Manasevit.

“At what point do we say this data is invalid,” Martin says. “We will need to have some tough conversations about accountability and achievement and what it all means, especially when we’re looking at the substantial learning loss that is happening.”

Two other big questions hovering over education policy in 2021 are school funding in the next COVID relief package and which party controls the U.S. Senate.


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“It’s going to be a little bit of a crazy ride for the next couple of years,” Martin says. “There’s a lot that could happen for education when we’re talking about stimulus and getting kids back to school.”

One thing that is clear is that COVID has given renewed attention to education funding, particularly around issues of equity and school infrastructure.

If the next Congress begins work on a national infrastructure bill, educators will want to watch if funding for school construction and renovation is included, she says.

School construction could create jobs to help the economy recover from COVID, Ward adds.

“I don’t recall ever having a conversation about school ventilations before,” she says. “The pandemic is brigning school funding to the forefront—the question is whether this moves anyone to do anything about it.”

‘We’re in for a lot of drama’

President-elect Joe Biden has said he intends to pick a secretary of education who has experience as a classroom.

FETC session preview

What Will the Biden Presidency Mean for Education Policies in 2021?

Thursday, Jan. 28 at 2 p.m.

In this session, attendees will hear about the challenges the incoming administration will face in accomplishing a presidential transition, what the 2020 election means for the balance of power in Washington, and the impact of that shift on the likelihood of new funding streams.

The presentation will also cover predictions on what the new administration might do through executive orders—including actions to address distance learning and assessments—and through the regulatory process. We’ll also discuss predictions for new sources of litigation and potential policy disputes in the coming months.

The next secretary will have to guide schools as they reopen classrooms in 2021 and communities debate whether teachers should move to the front of the COVID vaccination line. There will also be questions about vaccinating students.

Other districts may face staffing shortages as some teachers decide it’s not safe to return to classrooms, she says.

“The biggest issues for the incoming secretary are going to be the coming budget shortfalls and the tough choices schools are going to have to make,” Martin says.


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Policymakers will also have to tackle questions of equity, such as expanding broadband access and whether online learning provides students with disabilities equal access to education.

If Democrats gain control of the Senate, its Committee on Health, Education Labor & Pensions could be led by Sen. Patty Murray, who has been a big proponent of early childhood education and an opponent of for-profit colleges.

If Republicans keep control, the committee is likely to either be run either by Sen. Richard Burr, a moderate who has not had a major focus on education, or Sen. Rand Paul, who has pushed to limit the federal government’s role in schools.

“I think we’re in for a lot of drama in the next couple of months and years with very thin margins in the House and Senate,” Martin says.

Private schools and gender identity

Two education matters the courts—including the Supreme Court—are likely to consider in 2021 are private school funding and gender identity.

On the first issue, private schools gained more access to grants and other funding under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who openly encouraged private schools to apply for grants.

While a Biden administration is not likely to treat private schools similarly, these schools have gained new allies in Washington, D.C. during the Trump administration, Martin says.


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Courts may also tackle issues of gender identity and Title IX regulations. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education issued guidance that protected gender identity.

That guidance was rescinded by DeVos, who said the department’s civil rights investigators should follow case law in their states and regions, which led to a patchwork of enforcement, Martin says.

In a 2020 employment case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a transgender woman but DeVos said the decision didn’t apply to education, she says.