Biden Has a Plan to Rebuild Schools and Reduce Inequities—Here’s What We Think Will Work.

November 16, 2020

As the spread of the coronavirus continues throughout the country, support for reopening schools continues to spark debate. Despite many public officials declaring schools essential—for the wellbeing of both students and their parents, as well as for the country’s economic success—schools historically have lacked adequate funding to address student health and now need an influx of federal investment and guidance to safely welcome back students and staff.

Healthy Schools Campaign’s review of President-elect Joe Biden’s education agenda and emergency funding plan for reopening schools identified several policy areas that we consider priorities, especially during the current health crisis, for imagining an education system with health and equity at the center.

We included four of President-elect Biden’s agenda topics below that align with HSC’s policy recommendations for the next administration—including rebuilding public schools and increasing the number of school nurses and psychologists.

Each topic includes a link to specific federal recommendations and executive actions that can be implemented without congressional approval. Since it remains to be seen if President-elect Biden will have Senate support for his more ambitious goals, the latter may be particularly useful for the new administration.

1. Increase Federal Investment in School Facilities

Biden’s Education Plan and Investments in Infrastructure Plan:
Invest $100 billion to modernize schools. 
– Include funding in an infrastructure bill to improve public school buildings, specifically to address health risks, with additional funds going toward building energy-efficient, innovative schools.
– Build resilient infrastructure that responds to the threats and impacts of climate change.

Now is the time, starting with our most underserved communities, to update or replace outdated or poorly maintained buildings and infrastructure, where students and educators are learning and working alongside asbestos, contaminated water and mold, and to upgrade aging HVAC systems that can lead to poor indoor air quality.

Federal investment also must include capital improvements in outdoor learning and play spaces that can improve children’s health and the health of our communities. We know this can be done: Healthy Schools Campaign, along with Openlands, manages Space to Grow, an initiative to create climate-resilient campuses and transform Chicago schoolyards into beautiful green spaces for outdoor play, learning and connecting with nature. The schoolyards also use special landscaping and design features to reduce neighborhood flooding and serve as a resource for the entire community. 

In addition, HSC has a long history of working on issues related to school facilities. Our Healthy Green Schools & Colleges program supports schools in adopting green cleaning and related practices, and we assisted the state of Illinois in developing guidance to integrate health, energy and climate-related issues into school design.

September 20, 2018 Space to Grow ribbon cutting ceremony at Eugene Field Elementary. Photo courtesy of Space to Grow.

2. Increase School Health Personnel

Biden’s Education Plan:
Double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in schools, and partner with colleges to expand the pipeline of these professionals.
Expand the Community Schools model, providing wraparound support for an additional 300,000 students and their families by leveraging community resources to address unmet needs.

Prior to the pandemic, most schools did not have an adequate number of school nurses and other health providers. Given the additional pressure on school nurses when schools reopen, and the growing need to address COVID-related mental health trauma, schools need immediate funding to expand provider staffing.

Much of our policy and program work is aimed at cross-sector collaboration to better support schools and communities in improving student health and school wellness. For the past five years, HSC has led Healthy Students, Promising Futures, a national learning collaborative started by the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration to assist states in expanding access to Medicaid-funded physical and behavioral school health services. To date, 13 states have successfully done so, with more states in the process. 

More funding not only means more healthcare for the most disadvantaged students, but potentially more money for states and school districts to reinvest in health services for all students. HSC’s national policy brief on school health services has more information about the benefits and lessons learned. 

3. Eliminate School Funding Gaps

Biden’s Education Plan:
Triple Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families, to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. 
Funding will be used to enhance teacher pay at Title I schools, expand access to pre-school to 3- and 4-year-olds, and ensure districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools.
Once these conditions are met, districts will have the flexibility to use these funds to meet other local priorities. States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.

HSC supports an increase in federal stimulus to support public schools, with a focus on schools in low-income communities. We also support the COVID-19 Educational Equity Challenge Grant for states to support investment and resources for underserved communities and schools

States, districts and schools need guidance in developing new approaches to creating adequate and equitable funding. HSC works to leverage funding from other sectors, such as healthcare, public health and green infrastructure, to integrate health into school improvement plans. This allows schools to keep education funds focused on education while improving student wellness.

Historically, funding for education has been inadequate and inequitable, and COVID and the resulting economic fallout has only worsened the situation. As a result, we’re interested in national funding discussions that also recognize the community context and students’ individual needs.

4. Expand Anti-Hunger Efforts

Biden’s Campaign Statement:
Increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent during the recession, and temporarily provide low-income families with about $100 per month in extra nutritional support.
Work with Congress to enact the bipartisan FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries (FEED) Act.

In September, HSC President + CEO Rochelle Davis and HSC board member Audrey Rowe, a former USDA Food and Nutrition Service administrator, wrote a letter to the Washington Post advocating for a universal school meals program. Providing free and nutritious meals to all students would eliminate eligibility barriers at a time when hunger and food insecurity are on the rise and simplify school lunch programs. (Here’s more about why it’s good public policy.)

HSC has a long history of working with Chicago Public Schools to help shape the district’s school meal program. From our annual Cooking up Change healthy cooking contest to our advocacy efforts with parent leaders, we focus on change that is meaningful, sustainable and in the best interests of the students whose health and learning it directly affects. 

We also consider this experience as it relates to national school food policy, and we look forward to working with an administration that will reinstate science-based nutrition standards and support programs that connect schools with local, sustainable food systems.

Chicago Public Schools student chefs at the 2016 National Cooking Up Change competition in Washington, DC.

In conclusion, our experience has shown that an education system focused on prioritizing school health and addressing the effects of institutionalized racism will require a significant, long-term federal investment from the education, healthcare and public health sectors. We’re encouraged by President-elect Biden’s early proposals, and we believe the investments proposed—along with other policy changes and an unwavering focus on equity—could boost the national economic recovery effort, show that our country understands the value of public schools, and create lasting change in every community.