: ‘They can’t coerce the states into doing anything:’ Biden does NOT have the power to enforce in-person learning at K-8 schools — here’s why

United States

Over the past few weeks the question of whether the Biden administration will achieve a campaign promise to reopen the majority of schools in its first 100 days — and what that goal even means — has occupied the airwaves and the minds of students, parents and teachers. 

After the administration faced criticism for appearing to walk back the goal earlier this month, President Joe Biden reiterated that his objective is to have a majority of K-8 schools open for in-person instruction five days a week during a CNN town hall last week. 

“I think we’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days,” Biden said.  

The challenge is one that’s so large that it fits in with the type of massive, coordinated effort that many industry observers typically associate with the federal government. For instance, opening schools and keeping them open will likely require building upgrades, plentiful protective equipment, extra teachers and staff to ensure reduced class sizes, and more.

‘It’s more about what is capable of getting passed through Congress and then being acceptable to being implemented on the ground.’

— Laura Schifter, who teaches courses on special education policy at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education

But the reality is that the federal government alone doesn’t have the power to ensure the Biden administration meets its goal. Though Congress and the executive branch have the authority to create the conditions that would make it possible for schools to reopen safely, it’s state, local and district officials with the power to decide whether to bring students back to classrooms. 

The question of the federal government’s role in education is one Laura Schifter discusses constantly with her students at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, where she is teaching courses on special education policy and federal education policy in action. 

“It’s actually what people ultimately pass and deem it acceptable to be,” Schifter said of Washington’s role in policy surrounding K-12 schools. Schifter, who is also a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, worked as an education policy staffer for years on Capitol Hill. 

“There’s nothing that’s super prescriptive about what it has to be, but it’s more about what is capable of getting passed through Congress and then being acceptable to being implemented on the ground,” she said. 

Public schools are largely funded locally

Public schools are governed and funded largely locally and somewhat through the state, a setup that dates back centuries and was initially a function of a lack of state and federal capacity to manage education, said Campbell Scribner, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Education. 

Like today, that system had pros and cons in its early years. On the one hand, local school boards could respond easily to constituents and implement policies that varied based on local need. On the other hand, the institutions were often controlled by local business interests and stifled minority voices, Scribner said.  

The idea that communities should have some autonomy to decide what their children are learning gained particular resonance in the late 19th Century in response to a series of campaigns trying to establish a federal system of education, Scribner said. 

“They all failed, this is when states’ rights rhetoric got ramped up,” said Scribner, who is the author of “The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs and American Democracy. “

“That all takes on a special virulence or emphasis right at the turn of the 20th Century,” Scribner said. Those increased tensions occurred with campaigns to maintain control of schools in local communities became tied to white communities’ efforts to keep schools and other areas of public life segregated. 

That historical precedent of local governance meant that when, in the 1960s the federal government decided to get involved in K-12 schools in a major way as part of President Lyndon John’s Great Society initiative, officials could only do so through funding targeted towards particular students or schools. 

“They can’t coerce the states into doing anything,” Scribner said. “States can basically take that money voluntarily and meet various requirements.” 

Unique moment for the federal government

Today, money is still arguably the strongest lever that Congress and the executive branch have to pull in order to get students to school in-person. “The power that the federal government has is the power of the purse,” said Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University.  

“Many of the mitigation measures — whether it’s distancing, whether it’s PPE, whether it’s testing protocol — many of the mitigation steps take resources,” said Miriam Rollin, the director of the education civil rights alliance at the National Center for Youth Law, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit law firm. 

During the pandemic-induced downturn, the federal government’s role in funding schools’ efforts is particularly critical, given that state and local coffers, which are typically a major source of schools’ budgets, are squeezed. 

“The feds are the only level of government that can do basically what’s called a countercyclical investment,” or an investment in a downturn, Rollin said. “This is uniquely a moment in time for the feds to step up in a way that states and locals just can’t.” 

As part of its school reopening goal, the Biden administration is pushing the federal government to play the role of major backer. The White House said earlier this month that it would send $ 650 million to schools to scale up testing capabilities. In addition, as part of Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal, the president is urging Congress to send $ 130 billion to K-12 schools. 

Of course, the federal government is also deeply involved in trying to speed up the pace of vaccination against COVID-19. Vaccinating educators will be key to getting teachers and their union representatives in many locations to agree to returning to schools in-person. 

At the CNN T, -0.79% town hall Biden said that teachers should be moved up in the hierarchy for vaccination — a decision ultimately made by state leadership.

Still, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, said schools could be opened safely in-person without all teachers being vaccinated. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also called waiting to vaccinate all teachers before reopening schools “non-workable.” 

Historically one of the ways officials have used “the strategic influence of the federal dollar,” as Schifter described it, is to push schools towards improving equity between wealthy and poorer school districts, English language learners and native English speakers, white students and students of color, and others. 

Those will likely continue to be important priorities for the federal government in the wake of the pandemic as officials work to cope with the disproportionate impact of learning loss low-income students during this period, Schifter said. 

Offering a roadmap of science-based guidance

In addition to funding, another way the federal government can help schools reopen safely is by providing clear, science-based guidance as the CDC did earlier this month, Rollin said. 

In announcing the guidelines, Walensky, the CDC director, described them as a roadmap for schools. The guidance provides recommendations on precautions necessary for safe in-person learning that are tied to levels of transmission in the community.

The agency recommended that only schools in communities with low or moderate transmission open fully for in-person instruction. Walensky noted in a press conference announcing the guidance that the agency isn’t mandating schools reopen or close. 

Because so many schools are in counties where transmission rates are still high — roughly 90% of counties fall into this category, Walensky said earlier this month — schools and districts are left with difficult decisions, despite the guidance, Calarco said. Some may have to choose between what the CDC is recommending and following their state and local guidelines, which may be less stringent. 

Many white parents are pushing for school re-openings.

— Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University

That ambivalence can pose challenges for implementing an equitable opening policy, Calarco said. 

“When rules are ambiguous or when expectations are ambiguous, people with privilege see that as an opportunity to leverage the opportunity to their own ends,” Calarco said. 

She cited research indicating that the fuzzy criteria involved in ADHD testing allow privileged parents to obtain diagnoses for their children and give them access to resources and support that other children with similar behavior do not receive.

That dynamic has continued in the absence of information about what’s required for schools to open safely, she said. 

“Many affluent white parents are the ones that are pushing for school re-openings because it’s what’s good for them,” Calarco said. 

In a survey of roughly 2,000 families about school during this period, Calarco found that white children with college-educated parents are the group most likely to have access to traditional in-person instruction during the pandemic. 

Though there was a range in access to in-person schooling, Calarco found that generally, when it was available, families preferred the option for their children. Roughly 70% of parents who had a choice between traditional in-person learning or remote instruction sent their children to school in-person, her survey found. 

But the results varied. White and Black families where parents have bachelor’s degrees were roughly equally likely to send their children to school. Among those where parents didn’t have bachelor’s degrees, white students were more likely to attend school in-person than Black students. 

Hybrid instruction, or when students are in school in-person a few days a week, but not full-time, is less appealing for families, Calarco found. When given the choice between hybrid instruction and fully remote instruction, 62% chose hybrid instruction. Families of color and families without bachelor’s degrees were less likely to choose that option. 

The dearth of resources provided to schools serving low-income students and students of color and the treatment they’ve historically received in public schools may be making it hard for families of these students to trust that they’ll be safe attending school in-person. 

“It’s not surprising that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may not feel as comfortable in their schools even if they are open,” Calarco said. 

Part of the way the federal government can ensure that schools reopen safely when appropriate is by using its “bully pulpit” to “take down the temperature level” of the discussion over the issue, Rollin said. Teachers and school staff have been pitted against parents online and elsewhere as the debate of when and how students return to in-person learning continues to rage. 

“You need to have some sort of campaign moment to help build trust that acknowledges what is going in schools and is honest about it,” Schifter said.