Free, universal preschool school would be available to every 3- and 4-year-old under an expansive plan introduced Wednesday by President Joe Biden. The American Families Plan also includes a proposal for two years of free community college tuition, which along with pre-K expansion would add four years of free education. "Twelve years is no longer enough today to compete in the 21st Century," Biden said during an address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday.
The American Families Plan was revealed on the eve of Biden’s 100th day in office, by which he promised to have a majority of schools open for in-person learning, provide stimulus funding for academic and mental wellbeing supports, make vaccines available for educators, and more.
While several education stakeholders said Biden has delivered on his new administration’s education promises for his first few months in office, they say much work remains to guarantee students have access to equitable, high-quality and sustainable programs while schools manage their pandemic recoveries.
The education goal that received the most attention since Biden's Jan. 20th inauguration was the push to have a majority of K-8 schools open for in-person learning within the next 100 days. According to the Institute of Education Sciences’ School Survey Dashboard for 4th grade, 79% of schools were open for hybrid or full in-person learning in February.
Helpful to this mission for reopening were various resources provided to schools, including stimulus funding and school safety guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Additionally, Biden’s directive to states to make educators a priority group for vaccinations also helped school reopening efforts, Lake said. Earlier this month, the CDC said nearly 80% of pre-K-12 teachers, school staff and childcare workers had at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“It just had to happen politically, and realistically, teachers had to feel safe. And to me, I think they got that done,” said Lake, who suggested a new school reopening goal be set to help move schools toward a more typical five-day, fully in-person learning format if they are not doing so already.
Biden had also promised to expand COVID-19 testing and screening for schools. As part of the American Rescue Plan, $10 billion was dedicated for in-school testing initiatives, as well as technical assistance to schools from CDC and state and local health departments.
The American Rescue Plan, which infused $122 billion into the K-12 system, is part of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda for responding to the pandemic. The other two parts are the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, which both need congressional approval. The American Families Plan, which Biden called a "once-in-a-generation investment in our families — in our children," allocates $309 billion for the preschool and postsecondary initiatives. It also proposes educator preparation, workforce diversity strategies and affordable childcare programs. Additionally, the plan aims to guarantee workers 12 weeks of paid parental, family and personal leave.
Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee Bobby Scott, D-Va., said in a statement that the American Families Plan, “sets the foundation for a strong, shared, and equitable economic recovery.” However, Republicans in Congress say Biden's cumulative initiatives are too costly and partisan.
As the Biden administration and school systems look forward, Lake recommends the consideration of creative and sustainable practices, as well as an emphasis on social, emotional and mental health interventions.
“Kids are not OK right now. We know that. And we know that we need big solutions to solve those problems,” she said. “But kids were not OK before the pandemic either, and so I am afraid that if we wait, if we just kind of keep adding money to the old strategies, we're not going to find a real path out of this mess.”