Conservative Panel Contemplates Education Agenda for the Incoming Biden Era

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

In a panel discussion previewing President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration, a group of conservative education policy experts discussed what sort of issues they should be spearheading to influence impending changes to federal education policy. 

The wide-ranging conversation, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on Wednesday, highlighted the gamut of education policy, covering both K-12 and higher education issues, and in what ways conservatives should look to influence and engage in policy debate.

With Biden’s inauguration next week, Democrats will have unified control of Washington, creating a somewhat clearer, albeit incredibly narrow, legislative pathway to enacting their agenda. Yet the pathway being tenable severely weakens the leverage Republicans might have had — if they’d retained their Senate majority — to influence the direction of federal policy.

Understanding more pandemic-related aid is likely due to this new dynamic, along with the potential for budget reconciliation that could largely bench input from congressional Republicans, the panel hoped that any additional funding would be allocated to states in a manner that would enable flexibility on behalf of state governments.

“I think public education systems belong to the states,” said Wayne Lewis Jr., former commissioner of education at Kentucky’s Department of Education. “Funding from the federal government should in the vast majority of instances be granted to states, and then for states to make decisions according to their laws about how those dollars get allocated.”

Lewis said he doesn’t want the federal government to write states blank checks, but instead would like to see flexibility in any additional aid that could be provided in a categorical manner.

“One thing we should look for are areas of commonality,” said Lisa Graham Keegan, former superintendent of public instruction at Arizona’s Department of Education. “Education is not in my experience so much a partisan issue as it is whatever the traditional status quo is, versus the ability to move forward.”

Panelists agreed that if more federal money is on the way, that it should be used to make sure that doors are open so children can make use of programming that is best tailored to them. 

On the higher education policy front, the panelists discussed ways that postsecondary education could be better tailored to meet students’ needs. 

In a recently published, wide-ranging paper on federal education policy, Michael McShane, director of national research at EdChoice, posited a number of proactive higher education proposals for conservatives to engage in and lead.

A number of those policy proposals stemmed from revamping the college experience by promoting three-year degree programs, a hybrid workforce model, as well as third party credentialing.

The panelists also got into a discussion on student loan debt forgiveness, which could be an issue attached to additional federal relief. While the guests sought to highlight areas where they could work across the aisle on issues, debt forgiveness contained a number of thorny policy and principled differences — such as whether it’s fair to those who have already paid off their loans.

“For those who have done everything they needed to do to pay back these loans it just feels like such a bad faith move,” Keegan said, cautioning that the relief, depending on its administration, could damage people’s trust in the federal government.

Should the Biden era kick off with another pandemic relief package that bundles the issues of state aid and student loan debt relief, it's easy to envision a scenario in which these policy differences come to some sort of crossroad and largely determine the ability for both sides of the aisle to work together on higher education policy.


Publication Date: 1/14/2021

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