Joe Biden appeared to suggest during an interview in October 2007 that race was the primary reason schools were consistently failing in the District of Columbia.
Biden, then a U.S. senator who was waging his second presidential campaign, was asked by the Washington Post’s editorial board about his plan to reform the American education system. Biden began his response by lambasting then-President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy, then proceeded to advocate for raising teacher pay.
“Folks, you know, we’ve got to spend a whole hell of a lot more money on educating our children,” Biden said, according to the audio of the interview published on the Post’s website. “Giving them access to college, providing for better teachers. You want the best students in America, you need the smartest teachers in America.”
Claiming that 50 percent of young teachers “dropped out” of the profession, Biden said it was not surprising schools were failing, given the starting salary in a state like Iowa was $28,000 a year. It was at this point that an unnamed member of the editorial board pushed back on the assertion boosting pay would fix everything.
“If you were to look at the educational results of the schools in Iowa, you would find … they’re better than the [schools] in Washington, DC, … [which] pays teachers substantially more than $28,000 a year,” the individual said. “So, clearly, there is more to it than just pay; they have to be somehow held accountable going forward.”
Biden responded by saying it was important to “start off with what they start off with”— an apparent reference to the social and economic differences between Washington, DC, and Iowa.
“There’s less than one percent of the population of Iowa that is African American. There is probably less than four or five percent of it that are minorities. What is in Washington?” Biden said before someone responded with a “majority.”
“So, look, it goes back to what you start off with, what you’re dealing with,” he said.
“When you have children coming from dysfunctional homes, when you have children coming from homes where there’s no books, where the mother, from the time they’re born, doesn’t talk to them — as opposed to the mother in Iowa who’s sitting out there and talks to them, the kid starts out with a 300-word-larger vocabulary at age three,” he added. “Half this education gap exists before the kid steps foot in the classroom.”
It is unclear the full extent of the point Biden was trying to make. By the Post’s own admission, Biden left the editorial board with the “impression that he believes one reason that so many District of Columbia schools fail is the city’s high minority population.”
Adding to the confusion was Biden’s declaration at the start of the interview that he was not afraid to speak his mind on “fairly controversial issues.”
“I say what I think,” he said. “There’s a reluctance, I think, on the part of Democrats to just straightforwardly state where they are on some fairly controversial issues because they think the American people are not prepared to, quote, take the medicine.”
After the interview went public, Biden’s team pushed back on the implication that his comments were “race-based.”
“This was not a race-based distinction, but a discussion of the problems kids face who don’t have the same socio-economic support system (and all that implies–nutrition, pre-K, etc.) entering grade school and the impact of those disadvantages on outcomes,” a spokesman said at the time.
The situation, however, did not die down easily, especially as many were quick to contrast Biden’s remarks to the Post with those he made in February 2007 about then-candidate Barack Obama.
“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Biden told The New York Observer while expressing skepticism about Obama’s chances of winning the 2008 election. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Despite the “backhanded” compliment, Obama not only won the election, but also revived Biden’s political career — after the latter disastrously flopped in the Iowa caucuses — by tapping him for the vice presidency.
The controversial interview with the Post’s editorial board comes back into the spotlight after the former vice president claimed on Thursday that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids” when discussing education at a campaign event.