President Joe Biden took a whirlwind tour of Hampton Roads on Monday to promote a $1.8 trillion proposal that includes free universal pre-K and community college.
The proposal — dubbed the “American Families Plan” by the White House — effectively would create four additional years of free public education. The plan would make preschool free for all 3- and 4-year-olds and pay for at least two years of community college for all students.
In a speech in a classroom at Tidewater Community College’s campus in Portsmouth, Biden pitched it as an issue of international competition.
“The rest of the world has caught up to us,” Biden said. “They’re not waiting, and 12 years is no longer enough to compete in the world of the 21st century.”
The plan includes a long list of other family-related proposals, including a paid family federal and sick leave program, tax credits for childcare for younger children, increased financial aid for college students. During Monday’s visits, Biden and First Lady Jill Biden mostly focused on the educational aspects.
The pandemic has brought unprecedented disruptions to both preschools and community colleges nationwide. Fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment fell 4.6% across the state’s community college system as students delayed or cancelled college plans.
At one point last summer, the Virginia Department of Social Services reported that nearly 40% of the state’s childcare centers had closed. Although public preschool programs were among some of the first schools to reopen, in some cities that didn’t happen until well into the school year.
The White House has pointed toward research that shows long-term benefits for children who go to pre-K as part of the reason for the sweeping proposal.
“Children of that age who go to school are far more likely to graduate from high school and continue their education beyond that, rather than start off behind the eight ball,” Biden said.
Their first stop of the day was at Yorktown Elementary School, where the school was observing the first day of teacher appreciation week. The Bidens attended a meeting in the magnet school’s library to the upcoming plan that was closed to the press.
They then paid a visit to Cindy Bertamini’s fifth-grade class, where students showed off their latest projects and talked about life back in the classroom. President Biden posed questions about future careers and school, and several students spoke up on virtual learning.
Some students said they didn’t like it. Other said virtual learning wasn’t too bad and they enjoyed it. Yorktown Elementary has had students back four days a week since April 12.
The president went around asking the students, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A fashion designer,” one student responded.
“A chef,” another said, to which Biden replied, “Holy mackerel, I’ll be darned!”
“A hairdresser,” one student said. Biden quipped: “I could use some, some hair, I mean.”
During his remarks in Portsmouth, Biden touted them as an example of what’s working and the impact of vaccinating school staff.
“All our children — they are the kite strings that literally lift our national ambitions aloft,” Biden said. “So, we’ve got to invest in them, invest in our children, invest in the future.”
After the visit to Yorktown, the president and first lady went to Tidewater Community College.
At the college, they visited a classroom that is part of the college’s Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration (HVAC/R) program. Harlan Krepcik, the HVAC/R program lead who has taught at the college since 1989, was joined by three students for a quick circuitry demonstration.
Krepcik described to the president and first lady, who is an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, how he’s taught classes in a partially virtual environment and how the demand for HVAC/R technicians isn’t going away.
For some Virginia community college students, their tuition in high-demand fields could be free soon anyway under legislation signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in March. The G3 — Get Skilled, Get a Job and Give Back — program pays for students from low- and middle-income families in certain programs.
Biden’s proposal goes far beyond that, allowing first-time students and workers to enroll in community college for free for at least two years. Marcia Conston, TCC’s president, said the proposal could be transformational for the school that had seen years of enrollment declines.
“What we’ve seen is that a lot of individuals have lost their jobs in certain fields,” Conston said. “People are having to be re-tooled, re-trained and re-skilled for different types of jobs now. By providing free tuition, that is an opportunity to open those doors so individuals can come back to college”
Jill Biden cited her experience as a community college educator in pushing for free community college, noting that community college students come from many backgrounds — veterans, single parents, students just graduating high school.
“All our schools accept everyone — regardless of age or race or income or family legacy, and they offer classes that are flexible, so students don’t have to choose between work or school,” she said.
But a national free community college program comes with a hefty price tag — $109 billion, according to a fact sheet issued by the White House when the proposal was announced last week.
The universal pre-K program would cost another $200 billion. The $1.8 trillion figure includes $800 billion in tax cuts focused on families, including extending the child tax credit that was part of the latest federal coronavirus relief package and tax credits to support childcare.
Republicans have balked at the proposal’s cost and described it as government overreach. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it an attempt to “ram through ideological change” during remarks on the Senate floor last week.
Biden defended the proposal during Monday’s visit as fully funded, claiming it “doesn’t add a single penny to our deficit.”
According to the White House, the plan would be paid for by $1.5 trillion in tax increases and tighter tax enforcement over the next decade. About $700 billion of the predicted revenue would come from increased tax enforcement.
“For too long, we’ve had a two-tiered tax system,” Biden said. “Working families pay taxes they owe on the wages they earn. Some of the wealthiest Americans avoid paying anything close to their fair share.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.