First Lady Jill Biden Will Advocate for Public Schools and Community Colleges from the White House

On January 20, Jill Biden will be the latest educator to become First Lady. How much of an impact can she have on the national conversation and policy?

An educator is returning to the White House as First Lady for the first time since former school librarian Laura Bush left in 2008. But will Jill Biden’s presence make a difference in education policy or the national conversation?

It depends on the role and personality of the First Lady and how passionately she uses her platform. But First Ladies are in a position to make an impact.

“They have this platform to actually do some good in the country on the issues they are most interested in,” says Michelle Gullion, director of collections & research at the National First Ladies’ ­Library in Canton, OH.

Some First Ladies act solely as an arm of their husband’s political career, a surrogate campaigner who tries to reach the voters who might not otherwise support him, says Betty Boyd Caroli, a historian and the author of First ­Ladies: The Ever-Changing Role, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump. But she believes a president’s spouse can also bring attention to a cause and have an impact far beyond her husband’s time in office. She and Gullion cite Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification project, which added parks to Washington, DC, as a First Lady initiative with long and continuing legacy.

Johnson spoke of beautification not just in terms of green spaces in urban areas. She believed it was an all-encompassing environmental idea that included clean water, clean air, landmark preservation, and prioritizing national parks and ­wilderness areas.

A more recent First Lady who comes to mind is Barbara Bush. The impact of her literacy efforts continued not only beyond her days in the White House but still now, years after her death.

In 21st-century presidencies, First Ladies have successfully spotlighted issues and influenced the country’s culture.

“Although Melania Trump has had virtually no impact on policy or national conversation, as far as I can see, Michelle Obama did,” says Boyd Caroli.

Obama planted a garden and created nutrition and health programs to counter America’s childhood obesity problem. Before her, Laura Bush championed literacy and teachers. And neither stopped working for those causes and others when they left the White House. There are foundations, grants, and ongoing initiatives born from the actions of these women.

“It’s like so much of what women’s work is, it just becomes the fabric of what we do here in this country, as far as trying to better our country, our children,” says Gullion. “A lot of times the things they work on don’t get the attention, [and] they seem to go away, but they really don’t. They’re just things we continue to work on.”

Biden, a community college professor who spent years as a public school teacher, has been clear that supporting military families and education are the issues that matter most to her. As Second Lady during her husband’s two terms as vice president, Biden pushed for tuition-free community colleges and advocated for public schools and teachers, and she plans to continue in the larger role and brighter spotlight as First Lady.

“Every hardworking student should have the chance to go to community college tuition free,” she said in an opening address for College Promise Careers Institute, a three-day virtual conference in November that aimed to tackle the biggest challenges faced by American workers, including “the role free college plays in maintaining a competitive edge.”

“Community colleges change lives, they are flexible, and they meet students where they are,” Biden said. “This isn’t a Democrat issue or a Republican issue. It’s an American issue.”

That speech was guven during of a 24-hour stretch when Biden also addressed the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers (and their millions of members) and spoke at the Military Child Education Coalition for Virtual Education Summit.

Biden’s focus seems clear, and she isn’t waiting until January 20th to get started. Will her community college campaign lead to legislation? Who knows? But starting the discussion around community colleges, talking about their value, and putting the idea of free community college into the national conversation will have an impact. Biden’s continuing her work as a professor at Northern Virginia Community College would be a pretty big boost as well.

Throughout the presidential campaign, Biden said she wanted to keep teaching if her husband became president.

“I want people to value teachers and know their contributions and to lift up the profession,” she said.

She reiterated that desire after her husband ­became president-elect. If Jill Biden can keep teaching—as she did when she was Second Lady—she would be the first First Lady to continue her career after her husband was elected.

“I think it’s time we have that happen with a First Lady,” says Gullion.

The teachers who came before Biden didn’t consider it an option. Those educators-turned-First Ladies include Eleanor Roosevelt, Pat Nixon, Lucretia Garfield, and Abigail Fillmore, who taught after she got married, but not once she became First Lady, Gullion says.

“It just shows you how frustrating women’s history is that once you got married, you had to give up [your job],” she says. “I think that’s what’s so exciting about Jill Biden is she’s saying she’s going to continue to work because, like she says, ‘I’m a teacher, that’s who I am.’”

It will be difficult, but it is about time, Gullion says, and it can and should be possible. Biden’s experience as a working vice president’s wife—who also used her platform to advocate for her causes—gives her a good head start.

“I think she’s going to hit the ground running,” says Gullion.

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