The funding and will to transform education are here — we must seize the moment
In March 2020, the life of every single American changed when COVID-19 shut down early learning programs, K-12 schools and college campuses for over 70 million U.S. children, youth and college students. Suddenly many millions more parents — from baristas to bus drivers to politicians — with homebound students were made acutely aware of the importance of child care, schools, teachers and access to technological infrastructure and devices. Add the unrelenting year’s duration to this education devastation and the nation now has a massive, shared experience across the country, unlike any since World War II.
This convergence of Americans, the COVID-19 constituency, wants a change in education. Only 55 percent of parents feel K-12 education is on the right track. Seventy-one percent of U.S. adults are concerned about K-12 student academic progress, a trend across parties and income levels. Sixty-six percent of parents would rethink how we educate students.
And now, as schools move toward full reopening this fall, with vaccinations and safety protocols progressing daily, we are concerned by the potential of returning to the “norm” that existed prior to the pandemic. With equity gaps and disparities having been completely exposed, the system that produced them must change, and must change quickly.
The extensive federal funding that Congress has approved this year to support the reopening of our education system — from sanitizing schools to making up lost learning — provides the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring about transformative change.
But do policy and education leaders recognize this convergence of unprecedented public will and available dollars? Will they leverage this public will to make improvements and use relief funding for real change?
We know that 82 percent of parents polled favor more work-based learning programs and apprenticeships. Yet we also know that many students lack access to these types of programs, therefore losing out on key skills and opportunities into college and careers at the same time employers struggle to find workers with skills and experience that align to open positions. Work-based learning programs and apprenticeships help students build positive relationships with adults and give hands-on work experience, setting them up for future success. Now is the time to invest in programs that parents, students and employers want. Bold moves in this space must happen — such as moving policy and federal relief dollars to invest in efforts like work-based learning that the COVID-19 constituency desires.
Together, we have a collective 50 years making change in politics and education. Our friendship and partnership working on behalf of children and convening diverse groups of leaders to end the partisan gridlock has helped us realize the new heights that collaboration can help us reach. The pandemic’s effect on education has been felt by just about as large and diverse a population one could ever imagine, and now is the time to engage this informed group to push for needed changes in our education system. Without federal, state and nonprofit leaders working to create a public movement that can press policymakers to allocate these funds for maximum impact, we will fail to meet the needs of our students at this moment as well.
An unexpected public movement has been born from shared sacrifice. The COVID-19 constituency asks for education transformation in a time when federal relief investments could be leveraged to do just that. For elected policymakers and educational leaders, this is an unprecedented moment when they have ample resources and strong public support to undertake bold actions that provide students with the education systems they need and deserve. They must act and act now.
Bob Wise is the former governor of West Virginia, who served from 2001-2005 and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, having served from 1983-2001. He currently runs the education systems consulting firm, Bob Wise, LLC. Dr. Javaid Siddiqi is president and CEO of The Hunt Institute.
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