From preschool to college, Biden’s plan would strengthen U.S. education


Funding to historically Black colleges and universities has been cut from an early proposal of $45 billion to just $2 billion in current discussions. Funding to repair and modernize aging school buildings may be on the chopping block, despite the coronavirus pandemic showing the importance of upgraded HVAC systems for schools, and some schools with no air conditioning being forced to end the school day early on particularly hot days in recent weeks. 

As it came out of markup in the House Education and Labor Committee, Build Back Better would increase the maximum size of Pell Grants for low-income students by $500 and make Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients eligible for Pell Grants. Biden previously proposed to increase the maximum amount by nearly $1,500.

The plan as it came out of the House committee would add two years of free preschool and two years of free community college, both major steps, on the one end preparing children for school and giving parents free, quality child care, and on the other end giving college students the opportunity to get a two-year degree for free or significantly lower the cost of a four-year degree.

But both those plans would require states to opt in, meaning that, as with the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, people in Republican-controlled states probably wouldn’t benefit. That’s particularly unfortunate for rural families in those states, because, according to a White House fact sheet, “Rural children are less likely to be enrolled in pre-K programs than urban and suburban children, and a third of rural children enter kindergarten without having attended pre-K,” while 62.6% of Black children and 59.4% of Latino children of preschool age are enrolled in preschool programs. White children are more likely to be enrolled in preschool at 67.8%.

Parents of young children could still benefit from a plan to cap child care expenses at 7% of family income, which wouldn’t require state opt-in. 

The typical family with young children spends roughly $13,000 a year on child care expenses—holding back our economy and putting access to early learning out of reach for millions of low- and middle-income families, many of whom are families of color,” Rasheed Malik, associate director of research for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress, recently said in a statement. According to a CAP analysis, the plan to limit child care expenses “would lower the typical family’s annual child care costs by about $5,000 to $6,500 in most states.” That in turn means that mothers who’ve been pushed out of the paid workforce by high child care costs would be more likely to be able to work. It means some parents might be able to go back to school. The benefits of this would spread throughout the economy, in other words.

Even a scaled-back version of Biden’s original plan will be a major step forward for U.S. education, even as the system will continue to need more money to ensure that people have access to the education they want or need, that students don’t graduate college in life-defining debt, that parents won’t need to shape their work decisions around the inadequate or unaffordable child care available to them. But Democrats need to fight for every piece of funding that can be kept in the Senate reconciliation bill, because the stakes are so very high. 

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