Democrats Have Ambitious Plans for Education in Near Future

August 30, 2021 Updated: August 31, 2021

News Analysis

Since they took control of the White House and both chambers of Congress in January, Democrats have proposed increasingly ambitious plans. Education was a key focus of Democratic candidates in the primary and the general elections, and since taking control of the government, they have held strongly to that commitment.

Several bills have been introduced in the House and the Senate that would make significant changes to various aspects of higher education. Here are some of the Democrats’ most ambitious plans for education in the near future.

Expansion of Title IX, Penalties for Religious Schools With Exemptions

Title IX, passed in 1972, states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The provision was designed to address perceived disparities in women’s participation in athletic and other programs.

Since the passage of the law, Democratic administrations and Supreme Court rulings have significantly expanded the original scope of the provision’s meaning.

For example, the Obama administration interpreted the law as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of not only biological sex, but also gender identity and transgender status. During the Trump administration, this strict interpretation was loosened to allow sex-segregated schools more freedom in determining who they allow admission.

But in 2020, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) cemented Obama’s interpretation into law. In Bostock v. Clayton County, SCOTUS considered whether sexual orientation and gender identity were protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and ruled 6-3 that they were.

A year later, the Biden administration’s Department of Education used this decision to expand their own interpretation of Title IX. In a public statement, the agency explained that “it will enforce Title IX’s prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex to include: (1) discrimination based on sexual orientation; and (2) discrimination based on gender identity.”

Biden’s Secretary of State, Miguel Cardona, said of the move: “The Supreme Court has upheld the right for LGBTQ+ people to live and work without fear of harassment, exclusion, and discrimination—and our LGBTQ+ students have the same rights and deserve the same protections. I’m proud to have directed the Office for Civil Rights to enforce Title IX to protect all students from all forms of sex discrimination.”

Biden also signed an executive order on the same topic. He wrote: “It is the policy of my Administration that all students should be guaranteed an educational environment free from discrimination on the basis of sex, including discrimination in the form of sexual harassment, which encompasses sexual violence, and including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.” This guarantee, he said, would extend to all schools receiving federal aid under Title IX.

However, because some religious institutions have moral reasons for treating different sexes, sexualities, and other identities differently, a provision of the legislation permits such institutions to receive an exemption from Title IX’s requirements.

A bill proposed by Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Md.) dubbed the “Exposing Discrimination in Higher Education Act” now seeks to ostracize such institutions. It would require the Department of Education to publish a list of schools requesting or receiving such exemptions “in a prominent location” on its website.

It would also require exempted institutions to “prominently display the waiver on their websites in order to inform students of their beliefs before arriving on campus.”

Speaking of the bill, Clark said: “Every student deserves to attend a college where their entire identity is accepted and celebrated. Without transparency about a school’s beliefs, students may arrive on campus only to learn that their school has policies in place that infringe on their civil rights. I’m proud to introduce the ‘Exposing Discrimination in Higher Education Act’ to ensure that students can apply to college with all the information necessary to set them up for success.”

Executive Officials, Senate Dems Hope to Cancel Student Loan Debt

At a Brookings Institution event, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked the White House to waive for each individual up to $50,000 debt in student loans. This has been a priority for Schumer since Biden’s election.

In February, Schumer introduced a resolution co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “calling on the President of the United States to take executive action to broadly cancel federal student loan debt.” The resolution also set the forgiveness cap for students at $50,000.

Biden campaigned on a promise to cancel some debt but has been hesitant to go as high as these Senate Democrats are proposing. Before his inauguration, Biden’s staff said that the president supported Congress “immediately” canceling $10,000 of student loan debt as part of a CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus relief package. The CCP virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus, causes the disease COVID-19.

In a town hall after the Senate’s resolution, Biden said that he would not forgive $50,000 through executive action. He explained, “I am prepared to write off the $10,000 debt but not $50,000 because I don’t think I have the authority to do it.”

In the wake of this statement, others joined in the call for student debt cancellation. On Feb. 19, a group of 17 state-level Attorneys General asserted that Biden should move forward with the $50,000 figure, claiming he had the authority to do so under the Higher Educations Act.

While Biden has expressly opposed such a high cancellation on his own initiative, he welcomes congressional action. Speaking for the White House on Twitter, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “Our team is reviewing whether there are any steps he can take through executive action and he would welcome the opportunity to sign a bill sent to him by Congress.”

Biden’s nominee for Under Secretary of Education, James Kvaal, is far more resolute on supporting a wide-ranging debt cancellation. In the position, Kvaal would be the top official in charge of the $1.6 trillion federal student debt portfolio. It is unlikely that the Department of Education would take unilateral action to cancel debt on its own initiative, but Kvaal would certainly move to expedite the forgiveness program if Congress or the president should approve such a cancellation.

There has been some movement towards this goal from congressional Democrats. In March, the president signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that drew zero Republican backing and was approved by Democrats via budget reconciliation. The legislation included a provision that would make any debt cancellation tax-free until December 2025.

Warren said that the provision “clears the way for President Biden to #CancelStudentDebt without burdening student borrowers with thousands of dollars in unexpected taxes.”

Still, any wide-ranging action to cancel student debt would likely face harsh opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats alike. Because of Biden’s expressed opposition to the plan, it is unlikely to originate from the White House.

Voting Changes Targeting Youth on Campuses

Some provisions of the Senate’s “For the People Act” would make significant changes to voting laws on and around public university and college campuses.

Under the legislation, all public higher education institutions would be labelled as voter registration agencies. This section of the bill hopes to increase voter registration and voting rates among younger Americans.

To achieve this, the bill directs federal funding to qualifying institutions that increase voter registration on and around their campuses. Eligible initiatives include voter registration drives, speaking events by candidates, offering rides to polling places, and others.

Beyond this, the bill would also label student identification cards to count as legitimate forms of identification for voting. Because some schools accept illegal immigrants, this could increase the ability for aliens to vote on college campuses.

Prohibiting Discrimination on Basis of ‘Immigration Status’

A proposed Higher Education Dream Act, introduced by Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), would impose new restrictions on universities’ considerations for admissions.

Specifically, the bill is designed “to prohibit discrimination in higher education against certain noncitizen students on the basis of immigration status.” Eligible “noncitizen students” are limited to so-called “Dreamers,” recipients of temporary immunity from deportation under an Obama-era executive action.

The bill reads: “An institution of higher education that receives federal funds or financial assistance under any federal program shall not discriminate against or penalize in the admissions process a Dreamer student who is otherwise qualified for admission to the institution, on the basis of that individual’s immigration status, nor shall such an institution differentiate in the admissions process on the basis of residency between a United States citizen applicant and a Dreamer student applying from the same state.”

In other words, it would make it illegal for federally-funded universities to even consider immigration status during the admissions process. Any institution considering this factor would be subject to federal penalties.

Beyond this, schools would be barred from charging a higher rate of tuition to these applicants than they would charge their state or out-of-state citizen peers. Because this contradicts a standing U.S. law that bars non-tax paying illegal aliens from receiving in-state tuition rates, the bill repeals that provision.

It further makes it illegal for state, federal, or school officials to use information from Dreamers’ admission application to “arrest, detain, or initiate removal proceedings against any person identified in that information.”

This bill, if passed, could greatly increase the admissions rate of non-taxpayer students to in-state universities subsidized by federal and state taxes.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Joseph Lord
Joseph Lord
Joseph Lord is a Congressional reporter for The Epoch Times who focuses on the Democrats. He got his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Clemson University and was a scholar in the Lyceum Program.