Biden back to school as Republicans fight education culture war

By Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden will spotlight on Monday efforts to combat cratering U.S. student performance since the COVID-19 pandemic, as Republicans work to feature the emotionally charged issue of education in the 2024 campaign.

Biden, who returned on Saturday from a week-long vacation, will mark the time of year when U.S. parents send children back to school with his own trip to Washington’s Eliot-Hine Middle School.

The Capitol Hill area school for children aged 11 to 13 is working to boost its predominantly low-income students’ arithmetic with a tutoring program in partnership with George Washington University.

The Biden administration has pushed Congress to hike funding for public schools, including those that hire mental health professionals, through a bipartisan gun safety law last year.

Biden has also been directing more money into after-school programs, teacher apprenticeships, schools serving low-income students and public-private partnerships that bring tutors into classrooms.

“Since day one, President Biden has worked to help every school open safely for in-person instruction, accelerate academic achievement, and build communities where all students feel they belong,” the White House said in a memo on Monday.

Public education is largely funded and run locally in the United States and typically takes a back seat in the presidential campaign to jobs and prices at the gas pump.

But Republicans, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, looking to elevate hot-button issues in the presidential campaign have made children’s education a key focus.

This effort has included attempts to restrict trans athletes competing in school sports and campaigning to ban ideologically inflected “woke” books.

Former President Donald Trump and several of his rivals for the Republican nomination have suggested eliminating the federal Department of Education, a step that would require an unlikely act of Congress.

The COVID pandemic caused lengthy school closures, sent teachers fleeing the profession and frayed children’s mental health, reasons cited for sharp declines in U.S. reading and mathematics test scores since 2020.

Biden aides, who see this learning decline as a threat to long-term economic growth, hired an academic focused on the issue as an adviser to Biden this month.

Biden, 80, is seeking another four-year term in the 2024 election. The largest U.S. labor union, the National Education Association, a group of public school teachers numbering 3 million, endorsed him just a day after he announced his re-election bid.

Republicans are closely tied to efforts to steer more public education funding to parochial institutions and independently run charter schools.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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