This year, state leaders need to make K-12 education a priority

This year, state leaders need to make K-12 education a priority
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Governors across the country this month are standing in front of their legislatures to deliver their state of the state addresses. They’re reflecting on progress made in the past year and outlining their priorities for 2018. They’re seeking to galvanize legislators and unite them around a common vision for their state. They’re discussing important issues ranging from healthcare to infrastructure to education.

In fact, the latter issue — education — came up in virtually every State of the State address last year. State leaders made education a priority in 2017, as they confronted the great responsibility — and opportunity — provided through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the primary federal law that governs K-12 education policy. Under ESSA, state and local leaders have newfound flexibility to leverage federal dollars in smart and innovative ways to support students and educators.


State leaders’ focus on education last year excited me. During my tenure as governor of Delaware, I made K-12 education a focus of many of my State of the State addresses because I believe that the states and countries that out-educate today will out-compete tomorrow. I’m proud of the progress we made—from increasing the number of low-income children enrolled in the best early childhood centers—to the improved opportunities for college access, as well as in new career pathways for young people eager to get to work.


There’s lots of work to be done across the country to ensure the current rhetoric around educational improvement translates into meaningful action to support young people under ESSA. There’s also an opportunity for leaders to do a lot more to take ownership of their education plans and work with stakeholders — parents, educators and community members — to create and implement sound ESSA plans. In fact, a group of 45 experts reviewed every state’s plan for complying with this federal law, and they found that many states have not outlined detailed plans that will help all students succeed. 

For instance, reviewers found that many plans were light on critical details, particularly around how they would support underperforming schools and traditionally underserved students. A number of plans also lacked information on how they would utilize their funding set aside to support these improvement efforts. As states look toward implementation, it’s critical that they have a strong understanding of how they will support districts and schools in improving outcomes for all students.

It’s not too late for states to seize the opportunity to improve outcomes for young people as they look to implementing their ESSA plans. The 45 experts — representing former educators, state chiefs, civil rights leaders, and other state education experts—have provided actionable steps states can take to better serve students and improve education. In addition to these state-specific suggestions, reviewers also highlight best practices among peer states. For instance, Indiana, Rhode Island and New York all provide examples of how states can use a needs assessment to diagnose root causes of underperformance, implement evidence-based strategies, and apply school improvement funds to support turnaround efforts.

Governors can review this feedback, take it to heart and galvanize support for improvements in their states’ education systems. Fortunately, ESSA recognizes that improvements in education won’t come from Washington — positive change can only come from the local level, and I know that state leaders have the knowledge and skill to make it happen.

This year, state leaders can make real improvements in K-12 education a priority in action and not just rhetoric. Our country’s students deserve action. It’s up to leaders to collaborate with educators and community members to strengthen their states’ education systems and provide students with the high-quality educations that can lead to better futures.

Jack Markell served as the Democratic governor of Delaware from 2009-17.