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PILLAI: Rebuilding America's schools

A broken school system has the chance to change and recover once the pandemic is under control. Addressing the equity gap in remote learning and funding civics education can help address root issues.  – Photo by Pixabay.com

President Donald J. Trump may not be keen on facilitating a peaceful transition to the next administration, but President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are already preparing to implement their agenda.

A cornerstone of their policy platform is an ambitious educational plan that will support teachers and address inequities among students of different races, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Biden plans to triple funding for Title I, which assists schools that have a large percentage of students from low-income families. Another priority is to bolster teacher diversity by recruiting teachers of color, helping paraprofessionals receive teaching certificates and collaborating with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to prepare teachers for the workforce.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal government is supposed to supply 40 percent of the average per student cost for every special education student, but it currently only provides 14 percent of the cost. Biden has committed to covering the required cost and giving students mental health care by recruiting psychologists, nurses and social workers. 

Biden’s team is likely to tackle Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s regressive measures, which decreased protections for transgender students and rescinded guidelines (put forth by former President Barack Obama's Administration) on racially discriminatory discipline in schools.

Moreover, Biden is working to give "Dreamers" a pathway to citizenship and defend their access to education. His plan is a stark contrast to the Trump Administration’s disdain for "Dreamers" and its brief ban on international students coming to the U.S

Although Biden is not on board with the progressive idea of completely free education, he does want to secure universal access to pre-kindergarten and free public college. Colleges and universities with predatory and fraudulent practices will be a major focus since Harris has experience prosecuting for-profit colleges such as Corinthian Colleges.

On the topic of student loans, Biden said he will fortify the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to help teachers pay off their student loans, but details on current students’ loans are lacking, according to Biden's website. 

A hefty piece of this agenda is to roll back DeVos’s policies (which were, in turn, a rollback of the Obama Administration’s actions), but the real question still hangs in the air: Can Biden truly revamp America’s school system? And although the platform is meant to target inequity, does it address the fact that the quality of a student’s education still relies heavily on their zip code? 

The optimistic spirit of Biden’s education plan is promising, as were Biden’s own words during his victory speech in Wilmington, Delaware. "For America’s educators, this is a great day: you're going to have one of your own in the White House,” he said, referring to incoming First Lady Jill Biden, who is a professor at Northern Virginia Community College. 

These words are, indeed, music to the public’s ears. Yet Biden’s proposed initiatives include a plethora of buzzwords about funding, support and equality that do not necessarily show us how this plan will come to fruition. More importantly, the plan needs to tackle the educational issues exposed by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). 

The shift to online learning has left behind students who lack access to devices, WiFi, quiet spaces and other amenities. Families are reeling from the devastating financial impact of this crisis, and students themselves have to balance jobs with their classwork.

Some scholarships are contingent on GPA, but survival itself is proving to be a challenge, let alone academic performance. The prospect of loans hangs over students’ heads like invisible anvils, and companies (and government entities) continue to lure students into unpaid internships. 

Even if we are able to return to school in person next year, these issues will not vanish. Therefore, Biden’s team cannot act as if everything will return to normal. Instead, the new administration must adapt to a changed educational environment that will still rely on digital tools. 

With the country’s awakening to social and racial justice topics, comes the disturbing reality that our school curriculums are deeply biased and incomplete. Trump attempted to retaliate against The 1619 Project, initiated by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, by announcing a 1776 Commission to infuse curriculums with patriotic propaganda.

Not only do history classes teach different versions of slavery and the Civil War across the U.S., but our English classes also concentrate most on a literary canon that skews white people and males despite the abundance of diverse literature out there. 

Wreaking utter havoc on our government and ignoring constitutional principles, Trump and his enablers have unearthed the cracks in our political system. Civics classes are more important than ever, and they should focus not on the supposed perfection of our system but on the work that needs to be done (I am looking at you, Electoral College).

Media literacy classes are also a potential solution to address the wave of disinformation spread across social media during this election and for plenty of time before that. 

Biden’s plan is a solid first step, but he and his administration must go further to address the root of educational inequities and solicit the opinions of students themselves. 

Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Thursdays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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